York Public Works Director Dean Lessard stands at the foot of a stepped seawall along Long Beach Avenue near the town's new bathhouse. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — The town and state Department of Environmental Protection agreed to put a permit application on a new seawall installed along sections of Long Sands Beach on hold while next steps are considered. But differences of opinion continue.

DEP was to have ruled last month on the town’s after-the-fact permit application seeking approval for this new seawall design. The most visible installation is near the bathhouse — giant steps that replaced the old seawall, which had been battered by winter storms. DEP wants the town this winter to monitor the seawall’s effectiveness as compared to the old stone-type wall, which remains along most of the north end of the beach.

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DEP issued a notice of violation last June, stating the design went beyond the scope of what the town was allowed to do. There was no stop work order, however. DEP’s Mark Stebbins said his agency has no legal right to impose such an order; rather it would have to go to court, which he said it has not done.

As a result, the town made the calculated decision to install the stepped seawall south of the Sun ’n Surf restaurant and down as far as Long Sands Road — an area particularly prone to storm damage. For most of this stretch, said Public Works Director Dean Lessard, there is no beach, only yards of rocks that in bad storms are tossed onto the road.

“We spend a lot of resources maintaining this part of the road in the winter,” he said. “The trucks have plowed more rocks than snow after some of those bad storms.” He said in a storm at the end of November, “we noticed a difference already” where the seawall had been installed. “Now instead of closing the road 10 times a winter, maybe we close it only once or twice.”

[Town’s new seawall is in violation of state rules]

To date, the town has not continued to build a new seawall north of Sun ’n Surf, but plans call for that stepped wall to be installed on either side of the bathhouse.

This tiered system is the first of its kind in Maine and other coastal towns are watching York, said Stebbins, land division director of DEP’s Bureau of Land Resources.

“Everyone is looking to see what type of measures could be put in place to protect their infrastructure,” he said. “This is one of those test scenarios.”

The crux of the town’s belief in the new seawall’s efficacy versus the state’s concerns about it comes down to wave action. The town contends that as waves climb the wall their energy dissipates so that when they reach the top at Long Beach Avenue, they already lost a lot of their punch. The old seawall is slightly slanted but far more perpendicular.

DEP asked Maine Geological Survey marine geologists Stephen Dickson and Peter Slovinsky about this stepped system. In their Oct. 23 report, they stated the town had not supplied enough data. They appear on the face of it to buy the logic about the dissipation of a large wave making its way up the steps.

“When wave height increases or water depth increases, the wall behaves differently and tends to be less reflective than a vertical wall,” they wrote. They added the depth and height of the steps is critical to the calculations and that the town did not provide sufficient information to ensure there would be less beach erosion when these diminished waves turned back on themselves.

[Damages from winter storms still plague Maine beach as tourists arrive]

They expressed concern about the impact on beach erosion from small, 9-inch waves. That’s because the seawall footing, which acts as the first step, is entirely vertical and so waves hitting it go straight up in the air. The old seawall is slightly slanted, thus dissipating the strength of these small waves.

Lessard said he does not believe this concern to be relevant due to the infrequency that small waves hit the seawall. “The only time a small wave would hit the seawall is at an astronomically high tide. Small waves don’t typically come up as far as the seawall. There were 40 times in the whole year that the water level would hit this footing and of the 40 times, 20 were in storm events. It would have to be a high tide on a calm sea, an 11-foot sea. A 10-foot sea doesn’t come to the wall even at high tide.”

Stebbins said a monitoring program this winter could go a long way toward answering DEP’s questions.

“We’re looking for additional measurements to survey the beach elevations and videos to capture how the different seawalls respond to storm waves. We want to see what is really happening to the beach,” he said. “The town is trying to protect their infrastructure, and we’re trying to protect the beach.”

Lessard said the town wants to protect both. “This is our beach. We don’t want the sand to go away. This is gold to us, it’s our economic engine. But we don’t want the roads and homes to go away, either. Where’s the balance?”