A House Imperiled

The devastating effects of the Norton Point opening on one couple’s home.

Jerry Wacks is a worried man. With his wife, Sue, he owns a low, flat-roofed house tucked in the southwest corner of Chappaquiddick, facing Norton Point and the opening to the west. “Tucked” is one word to describe it. “Trapped” might be a better one.

When Jerry, a psychiatrist from Lexington, built this home in late 1984, the Atlantic shoreline lay sixteen hundred feet to the south. Over the years, the beach has eroded northward in measured and expected ways, but neither Jerry nor Sue ever believed this retreat would threaten their summer and weekend home.

Yet last winter the distance between the house and the ocean suddenly diminished to about two hundred feet. The opening through Norton Point was depriving the southern Chappy coastline of sand, and the current along the shore undermined – “roto-rootered” is Jerry’s evocative verb – the earthen bluffs that now serve as the final defending ramparts between their home and the sea.

One cold morning in January, Jerry and Sue Wacks walked the bounds of their two-acre lot and looked over the ledge at the Atlantic surf clawing its way into the base of the cliff. They no longer know whether to describe their home in the present tense or the past.

“Listening at night, listening to a pounding storm surf, and you know the sands are shifting, you know the sands are coming at you, but you don’t know how big the waves are, and you don’t know where the wrack line is going to be this time,” says Jerry of his new anxieties. Sue, recently retired as a teacher and guidance counselor at a middle school in Braintree, recalls first seeing the house after she and Jerry met in 1986. “I remember thinking the ocean was close,” she says. “I had no idea how close it was going to get.”

The immediate problem for Jerry and Sue is that there is no place on the property to move the house. It sits at the apex of their lot, with Katama Bay to the west, the Wasque conservation lands to the north and east, and the advancing Atlantic to the south. Visitors to the Wasque preserve, which belongs to the Trustees of Reservations, have long crossed Jerry and Sue’s property as they’ve walked the shore or driven the trails out to Norton Point. For twenty-five years these beachgoers have done so unwittingly and with Jerry and Sue’s unspoken consent.

“But apparently no good deed goes unpunished,” says Jerry. Last summer, as nearby trails and parking lots were lost to the sea, visitors to the Wasque reservation and beaches routinely blocked or actually parked in the Wackses’ driveway instead. They blamed Jerry and Sue for barriers on the dirt road that the Trustees had set up to keep cars from driving over promontories into the sea. To their amazement, Jerry and Sue were given the finger, yelled at, and had their front door kicked in by beachgoers expecting rights on the Wacks property that were never legally theirs to begin with.

With new fences erected at strategic points on the Wasque preserve to keep cars from traveling where beaches, roads, and lots no longer exist, Jerry and Sue hope the summer ahead will be a more civil one. With officials of the Trustees, the Wackses have also discussed whether they might trade official access across their retreating shoreline for a place on the reservation to move their house. (Neither they nor the Trustees will discuss these talks publicly.)

“As I see it,” says Jerry, “we are the only house in this breach cycle that is seriously in jeopardy.” Sue says Jerry now finds it difficult to stay in the house through a weekend visit, and they often leave early. They wake up in the night in Lexington, wondering what a storm over their heads is doing to their property on Chappy. Jerry and Sue have suffered ailments caused by anxiety.

“We go to the doctor a lot lately,” he says. “But we’ve had twenty-five fabulous years here.” They’ve hosted as many as fifty guests during the summer, raised dahlias in a garden conjured from the sandy soil, picked pears from a tree with their two young grandsons at the end of a fruitful summer, watched the sun rise over Wasque and set over Katama Bay
and Norton Point all year-round. Sue thinks about all this for a moment. “We’re very lucky,” she says. But then she listens to the surf a moment more.

“I used to love the sound,” she says. “Now I don’t.”