The Environment Agency finds itself between a rock and a hard place when trying to decide how to manage the coastline by Jury's Gap, near Lydd in Kent.
Environmental priorities, specifically the fact that most of the coastline is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), are competing with the wishes of the residents who want sea defences to continue.
An SAC is a site that is considered even more environmentally significant than a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). European law, in the form of the Habitats Directive, dictates that these areas are protected and in this case that nature is left to take its course. The SAC itself relates to the vegetation in the shingle beach. Both perennial vegetation located behind the foreshore and the driftline vegetation that builds up annually.
This is of little significance to the owners of the 10 properties at Jury's Gap. Brigitte Bass owns the coastguard's cottages, which she inherited in 2005 from her aunt. 'We moved in here when my aunt died. We can't sell them but nor can we abandon them.
She hoped that we would live here. People are valued less than vegetation and there is nothing we can do about it, ' she says.
Bass and other residents are frustrated by the lack of communication from the authorities since work began on the second shoreline management plan (SMP) in 2004. It is an accusation the agency does not deny. 'There was certainly an element of truth to this and there was a lack of information available to people before, but since July we have done a lot to involve people in the strategy. There has always been a conspiracy theory that we have got a preferred option up our sleeve and that the whole process is a sham, but that is not the case, ' says agency project manager Richard Hull.
A total of 29 options for managing this section of beach, which in SMP1 benefited from a 'hold the line' policy, have been considered by the agency. In SMP2 the policy for the section is managed realignment so properties that formerly benefited from defences may not do so in the future (see diagram overleaf).
At the moment an earth embankment runs in front of Bass's cottage, and the beach in front of it is regularly recharged.
Unfortunately for Bass the recharge is set to stop. 'The shingle is extracted in accordance with planning permission which is shortly to expire. The nature conservation value of the site from which the shingle is taken means that planning permission is unlikely to be renewed indefinitely, ' says an EA briefing on the area.
Currently shingle that collects near Dungeness is collected and redistributed along the coast but again this clearly disturbs the SAC. Without this recharge the beach will scour and it's only a matter of time before the embankment is overwhelmed.
So there are three possible futures for Bass: the embankment is overwhelmed and the house floods; the managed realignment scheme selected means that protection is removed and the house is eventually lost to the sea; or a managed realignment scheme is selected which defends the property.
There could be light at the end of the tunnel. The Ministry of Defence is adamant that the Lydd fi ring range next to the properties is a unique army facility that must be defended.
A Military and Economic Justification Paper submitted to the Agency concludes that the Lydd ranges are 'vital to the delivery of military operational capability and output and must be protected from the risk of flooding in the national interest'.
Last week, the Environment Agency published a position statement clarifying its thinking on this section of coastline. 'The Environment Agency's strategic objective for this frontage is to promote an option protecting all economically viable assets and causing least or no adverse effect on the designated features of the SAC.
'At this stage the agency intends to promote an option for the Lydd frontage, comprising a rock revetment to protect properties on Romney Marsh, including those at Jury's Gap and Midrips. This option will also protect infrastructure, agricultural land and much of the Lydd ranges, ' says the statement.
But this doesn't mean the cottages will definitely be protected. 'We have got to caveat this statement by saying that we have yet to test this against the habitat regulations, ' explains Hull. 'What we construct will damage the SAC and we can't claim that this defence will protect that.'
Natural England is all too aware of this: 'The Agency is aware that building a rock revetment along the coast will damage the site.
We have been working with them on the issue for years. It is a very tricky situation because it is such a dynamic area.
'To build this defence the Agency will have to prove there is an overriding public interest.
Perhaps the MOD will be able to do this but the cottages are more vulnerable, ' explains Natural England conservation adviser Audrey Jones.
A fi nal proposal is expected to be put out for consultation in August. But should the properties fall victim to environmental legislation there is no compensation on offer for those affected.
'There has to be something to address the social justice issue, ' says Bass. But for now,