NEWBURY — Voters at last night's Special Town Meeting were in no mood to talk.
In less than 20 minutes and with little discussion, voters overwhelmingly approved two proposals to advance the Plum Island beach replenishment project by taking two property easements by eminent domain.
The two measures each required two-thirds majority votes to pass, but the show-of-hands on both was so clearly overwhelming that Town Moderator Joan Weyburn didn't even bother to count.
Voters added an amendment that withholds any compensation to the property owners for the easements. Town Counsel Anthony Penski said the rationale is that the value added to the two properties by the beach nourishment exceeds the value of the easements.
Voters also approved an article that would transfer $135,000 to pay Newbury's share of the project.
More than 400 registered voters packed the auditorium at Newbury Elementary School, delaying the start of the meeting by half an hour, as extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the crowd.
Selectmen are scheduled to meet this afternoon to issue the order of taking of the easements, at 58 and 60 Northern Blvd. Penski will file the easements tomorrow at the Essex South Registry of Deeds in Salem.
Weyburn called last night's session to order at about 7:30, and selectmen Chairman Joseph Story introduced the first warrant article: transferring money to pay Newbury's share of the project, which will bring up to 120,000 cubic yards of sand onto the island's badly eroded beach.
Selectman Vincent Russo, who has been working on the beach nourishment plan for a year, said the long-range solution to the "unnatural, accelerated erosion" is the reconstruction of the late 19th-, early 20th-century jetties at the northern tip of the island and southern end of Salisbury Beach. However, the destruction of a Northern Boulevard home undermined by ocean waves in November galvanized officials into action.
"When we lost that house, we realized we couldn't wait for the jetties to be fixed," he said. "We had to do something now."
That something was to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deposit sand on the beach.
Northern Boulevard resident Marc Sarkady, president of an organization called the Plum Island Foundation, was the only speaker from the floor on the eminent domain articles.
Sarkady said the beach erosion problem extends beyond Plum Island. He said when property values decline on the island, the tax burden gets shifted elsewhere in town.
Last night's votes mark the latest step in a process that has been in the works for a year and will replenish the beach from Plum Island Center northward to about 80 Northern Blvd.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to dredge the Merrimack River channel and deposit the sand directly onto the beaches at Plum Island and Salisbury. The dredging operation is expected to yield 160,000 cubic yards of sand. A 2,500-foot strip of badly eroded Plum Island beach would receive 120,000 yards, while the other 40,000 would go to Salisbury Beach.
For the onshore deposit, the Army Corps requires easements for public access to the beach from the owners of all adjacent private properties. The owners of 26 Plum Island properties were asked to provide easements. Twenty-four complied, but two others refused.
Christine Florio of Framingham and her brother, Worcester attorney Paul Novak, argued that the language of the easements gave state officials the authority to close the entire beach if they wanted to. Florio and Novak proposed substitute wording, but it was rejected by the Army Corps and its state partner on the project, the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Faced with the prospect of having to scrap the project for the lack of two easements, town officials and a group of island residents instead sought to take them by eminent domain.
Sarkady last night said he respected Florio's and Novak's property rights, but the dire situation outweighed those rights.
"If the beach isn't there, having a right of way to nothing isn't worth much," he said.
Without the easements, the dredging would proceed as planned, but the sand would be dumped near the shore, not on it.
The deadline for obtaining all the easements passed on Oct. 2, but the Army Corps agreed to wait until after the eminent domain votes at Town Meeting.
The corps has put out a solicitation for bids on the project, acting on the assumption that the final two easements would be secured by eminent domain.
The actual work is scheduled to be done in January, February and March.
Dredging the channel is expected to cost $2.1 million, all of it from the Army Corps budget.
The onshore deposit adds another $2 million to the price. Federal funds will cover 65 percent of that sum, about $1.3 million. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation will ante up 75 percent of the remaining $700,000, or $525,000, leaving Newbury and Salisbury to pay a combined $175,000. Since Newbury would receive 75 percent of the sand, town officials agreed to pay a similar portion of the cost. That works out to $131,250 for Newbury and $43,750 for Salisbury.
Town Meeting also voted to transfer the $135,000 from the $175,000 proceeds of the July 2008 sale of a piece of town-owned land on the island. The transfer covers the town's share and builds in a small contingency fund.
The beach renourishment project has been the work of a multi-agency task force called the Merrimack River Beach Alliance. It is composed of federal, state and local officials and nonprofit stakeholders, such as Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates and the Salisbury Beach Betterment Association.
The alliance is chaired by Newbury Selectman Vincent Russo and state Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican whose district includes Newbury.
One of the stakeholders, the Plum Island Foundation, hired an influential Washington lobbying firm, Marlowe & Company, that specializes in beach renourishment projects.
The Army Corps agreed to the onshore deposit of sand after an internal study by the agency found that 26 buildings and a section of Northern Boulevard would be lost to erosion over the next 10 years if no action were taken.
Onshore deposit is far more expensive than the usual method of disposing dredged material near the shore.
The expected yield of sand would add about 70 feet of width to the shoreline, according to Army Corps estimates.