On one of the grittiest stretches of the historic waterfront here, the peaks of the Beauport Hotel will soon rise above the truck noise and smell of fish. Yet when the last drop of water fills the rooftop swimming pool, the luxury hotel will be more than incongruous with the neighborhood theme. It will also stand as a challenge to even mild climate change predictions.
For the past century, storms during high tide have flooded this neighborhood. In the next century, a two-foot rise in sea level, projected by an international consortium of scientists, would put the hotel’s property line underwater.
Despite Massachusetts’ very public stance against development on beaches like this one, the state is providing $3 million for roadway and other improvements around the controversial Gloucester hotel development, an examination by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting
The issue is starkly illustrated in Gloucester, but it is a story up and down U.S. seaboards: Regulators are pinched between development pressure and the desire to keep people and property safe from the steady rising of the sea.
“That has pushed regulators to be a little more lenient, particularly when you have a big money developer,” says Jessica Grannis, adaptation program manager for the Georgetown Climate Center, in Washington, D.C.
The $25 million, 96-room hotel is financed by Jim Davis, the billionaire chairman of New Balance, and is touted by proponents as a necessary addition to its gritty working waterfront in order to survive the economic fallout of drastic fishing limits.
The hope is to save the city’s ice plant and fish auction house by generating awareness and tax revenue from tourism.
Yet vocal opponents say given what is known about climate change, it is not prudent to build a grand hotel on a low-lying, flood-prone beach – and importantly, taxpayers should not be helping ensure it gets built.
The first line of defense
In Massachusetts, coastal municipalities largely control the zoning that directs development, and they have broad power to enforce the state’s environmental regulations.
But this dynamic is inherently a conflict of interest. A study from the University of Rhode Island found municipalities might not share a state’s environmental goals, while the University of Vermont concluded coastal tax revenue is enticing to local governments because property owners and federal taxpayers subsidize flood losses.
Gloucester has a track record of exercising questionable zoning authority. In 1996, the state overturned a city decision to allow a shopping mall in an area federally designated as a port. In 2008, a lawsuit brought by residents caused a developer to back out of a proposal to convert an old paint factory into condos—a project the city had approved within the city’s marine industrial zone.
Still, over the past decade, political momentum grew supporting gentrification of the abandoned Birdseye plant – the birthplace of flash freezing. It stood in the middle of “the Fort,” a historic neighborhood packed with marine industry and middle class homes, and bordered by a sandy public beach– a big draw for developers.
After Davis purchased Birdseye in 2011, says Valerie Nelson, a working-waterfront activist and former city councilor, “There was never a serious discussion about whether this was a good place for a hotel.”
Gloucester’s Mayor Carolyn Kirk disagrees, saying most of the city’s residents want the hotel to shore up the city’s property tax base.
“The hotel is the cake, the frosting and the ice cream,” Kirk says. “It’s the property tax, the meals tax, and the lodging tax.”
Nelson says local opposition to rezoning the Birdseye property – including a petition signed by more than 200 residents – was shut down by the City Council in 2012 when it voted to rezone before a full hearing of objections took place.
The missing sea rocket
As the city and the state reviewed appeals to the hotel’s permits, Paul Godfrey, a retired professor from UMass Amherst and renowned barrier beach expert who has been a consultant to the US Department of the Interior, did a pro-bono study for opponents on the hotel’s environmental impact.
He found the unique shape of the harbor would focus a hurricane’s energy “dead center of the Birdseye building.” He also found that storm waves crashing into Birdseye and deflecting back had significantly eroded the beach.
Godfrey says climate predictions show these patterns will only worsen in time, and that the Beauport Hotel will likely be the first building on this street to be underwater. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sea levels worldwide are expected to rise between 1.7 to over 3 feet by 2100 as the oceans absorb most of the temperature rise from the release of heat-trapping gas from factories, cars and power plants.
“These things have been ignored,” says Godfrey. He was more blunt in a letter to the City Council in 2013: “Have the impacts of Hurricane Sandy had no effect on decisions made in Gloucester?”
The hotel’s development team contested Godfrey’s report, noting a planned new seawall protecting the building will be 20 feet farther from the ocean than the Birdseye building. They also said that the first floor will be raised above a parking area, higher than the federal government’s required height for coastal building.
Les Smith, the hotel’s coastal geologist, says there has been virtually no erosion on this beach for the past 100 years.
“You have to work with what you have and develop good designs based on good engineering,” says Smith.
Godfrey and opponents have claimed the hotel is being built on a specific type of barrier beach – one with an active dune system – that would make any building a non-starter, based on state law. But succulent, thick-leaved plants known as sea rockets – that only grow on barrier dunes – disappeared from the beach in front of the Birdseye site soon after Godfrey identified them in his 2013 report. Some hotel opponents considered it destruction of evidence.
Taxpayers on the hook?
In November 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection decided the Birdseye property and much of the Fort was once a barrier beach, but no longer.
“The dune form no longer changes in response to wind and waves because it is ‘locked-up’ beneath pavement and buildings,” the agency concluded. In other words, a developed barrier beach should not be regulated as a pristine barrier beach would be.
That determination conflicts with best-practice recommendations from the 1994 state Barrier Beach Task Force, which stated, developed or not, a barrier beach is a barrier beach: “This is an important point that should [not be] overlooked by barrier beach managers.”
As far back as 1980, the state recognized barrier beaches were risky investments. An executive order passed by then-Gov. Ed King – and which the Patrick Administration advised expanding – says the state should not funnel taxpayer money to encourage development on hazard-prone barrier beaches.
Yet that is what is happening in the case of the Beauport Hotel.
Businesses in the Fort say plumbing, drainage, and roads along this developed barrier beach are inadequate for commercial needs.
When the hotel proposal came through, Gloucester fast-tracked an infrastructure upgrade for the Fort, and secured a $3 million grant through the MassWorks Infrastructure Program to do it. MassWorks supported the grant because the hotel was considered a job creator and spur to economic development.
Yet even the city’s director of public works says the new infrastructure – particularly new drainage pipes – won’t prevent flooding, because the Fort’s elevation is simply too low to fix.
Walking a fine line
Despite Massachusetts’ stance against development on barrier beaches like the one where this Birdseye plant stood for a century, the state is providing $3 million for roads and other improvements around the controversial hotel being built there.
Public officials – both elected and appointed – are in an awkward position on climate change.
“We essentially live on a different planet than the planet where these laws and regulatory systems were put in place,” says Seth Kaplan, vice president for climate policy at the Conservation Law Foundation.
Martin Suuberg, state undersecretary for energy and the environment, points to numerous actions Massachusetts is taking to meet the challenge of climate change. For example, the state is giving Gloucester $50,000 to identify its most vulnerable low-lying areas.
Suuberg said replacing the dilapidated Birdseye plant with the Beauport Hotel will be an environmental win-win. “In this particular case, this was a site with a lot of problems that [the Beauport Hotel], frankly, addresses,” says Suuberg.
Suuberg refused to answer questions about the $3 million state grant, which seems to be in violation of King’s executive order.
Yet a 2011 report from Suuberg’s office advises enforcing and expanding that executive order, known as 181. It also says existing rules do not go far enough to protect the coasts: “New construction and redevelopment are likely occurring in areas that will erode and flood within the lifespan of these projects.”
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting — an independent, nonprofit newsroom based out of Boston University and WGBH News.