It’s More than the Corps: Protecting the Beach in Saco


It’s More than the Corps: Protecting the Beach in Saco

The beach is an asset to the city of Saco. Our restaurants, grocery stores, amusement and entertainment venues fill in the summer time with guests. This revenue supports many businesses in our city. Yet, for close to 100 years, the city by its actions has demonstrated that they do not value the beach as an asset. It has ignored the slow erosion of the little community at Camp Ellis, and the beach, except for patching roadways and adding geotubes when pressed by homeowners. The city missed the opportunity several years ago to buy the convent property at Bayview for under $400,000 and turn it into a reflection of the commitment to one of its major assets for its citizens and businesses: the beach.  Can you imagine a public beach front park there?
Our current Mayor, Marston Lovell said last night at a meeting at City Hall that the houses now being crowded into that small plot of land at Bayview over the standard density code for a residential area in Saco was how “the city was able to pay for additional parking lots across the street on Seaside Ave.” Shame on this city if we didn’t have $400,000 to invest in its citizens and provide us with access to one of the premier assets of this city when that property came up for sale. 
As a community, we have some lovely natural resources, which we continue to ignore. History is filled with communities who woke up to the natural resource assets they had used previously for industry. Our neighbors in Biddeford realized the recycling plant on the river soiled both the air downtown but also the beautiful riverfront. Chicago in the early 1900’s realized that Lake Michigan was an asset after being pushed by the Women’s City Club to set aside land for a public park system on the waterfront. Who doesn’t go to Chicago now without at least glimpsing that beautiful park?

​Saco may be waking up too late, but it is important that all of its citizens who love this community and are grateful for its assets use their voices to change the course we have been plodding as a community.  The beach is an asset for this community; it fuels industry, commerce, tourism, recreation and retail and makes Saco a wonderful livable city.  Yet after attending many meetings about erosion of our beaches I realize only homeowners and representatives from Ward 4 ever show up to meetings about the erosion at Camp Ellis and Ferry Beach. 
The theme over the years has been to blame the Army Corps for the jetty, which has hastened the erosion. Once, when the mills were active in downtown Saco and Biddeford, the jetty provided a navigable channel for big ships coming up and down the river servicing that industry. Those industries are gone, the mills are being repurposed and yet the jetty stands. 
We can blame the Corps for their inaction as we have done for the last 7 years that I have heard about, or we can begin to look at our own inaction as citizens of Saco. The beach and the river are assets to our communities and we need to figure out how to use our political power and will to make a difference. Only the mayor and the ward 4 Councilor show up to these meetings. This is not the responsibility of just the homeowners in Camp Ellis and Ferry Beach or the Corps of Engineers. 
The homeowners in Camp Ellis pay their taxes to the city of Saco; the beach and riverfront are assets to the commerce and recreational needs of all of the citizens of Saco. All of us have a responsibility to get on board and demand action. We cannot continue to sit back and do nothing while blaming the Army Corps of Engineers for their inaction.
The city is now planting a wall where what is left of Surf Street extends to Eagle Avenue in the hopes it will protect the homes behind it. Patrick Fox at the city should be commended for getting this initiative going. However, it won’t protect the beach, as the beach will continue to wash out on the other side of the wall. Like Kennebunk and other areas, the beach may only be accessible at low tide. 
This solution is probably too little too late, but if it buys time so that the Army Corps project to dredge the river occurs this fall, and more than 700,000 cubic feet of sand is dumped at Camp Ellis, there may be a beach for at least 5 years, if the engineers’ estimates are correct. We are all grateful for the action by the city and Mayor Lovell to now to get the wall built, but it begs the question, if this could be done now, why wasn’t it done 10, 50, 100 years ago when there was more of a beach to save? 
As humans we wait too long until we are pushed by outside forces to anticipate something we see coming. Sea level rise is already occurring and in our neighboring city of Portland, they can see the impact every time there is a high tide. Up and down the eastern seaboard, flooding is occurring in areas previously untouched by tides as oceans rise. 
If we as citizens of the city of Saco care about the beach and the river as premier assets of our community, then ALL of us need to step up to our responsibilities. It is not just the Corps fault, not just the homeowners at Camp Ellis’ responsibility but our responsibility as citizens of Saco to elect officials who will have the political will to fight for our community resources. Our strategic plan, our city website, our commissions and committees should all be re-energized to look at our city not just as any other New England town, but a town that has two very beautiful natural resources that we need to honor and protect. 

(Cathy Stackpole is the Executive Director of Ferry Beach, a retreat and conference center on the beach in Saco. Previously, she has been a CEO for the Girl Scouts, the city of Kansas City, MO planning initiative and several battered women’s shelters. She also lives in Ward 4. She also loves photography and took these pictures, below.)

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