NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 20, 2013

State issues warning over Plum Island's rock wall

By Dave Rogers
Staff Writer

---- — PLUM ISLAND — The state Department of Environmental Protection has sent a message to Annapolis Way and Fordham Way residents dumping tons of rocks along the shoreline to keep waves from claiming their homes: When winter’s over, you may have to pick them all up and cart them away.

Almost two weeks ago, a powerful storm, coupled with astronomically high tides, wreaked havoc on the barrier island, causing two homes to fall off their foundations and another four to be demolished after the waves damaged them past the point of no return. Several other homes were deemed uninhabitable. Threatened homeowners took matters into their own hands and hired contractors to erect enormous stone piles from the center groin to the south end of Fordham Way. The wall of stone now stretches for about a half mile.

Several homeowners contacted by The Daily News said they felt they were legally allowed to dump the stones and build the barriers, but the letter from the state makes that far less certain.

The DEP’s message, which came in the form of a March 15 letter to homeowners from the desk of Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell, said depositing cement blocks or piles of small rocks (called riprap) on the beach would likely do more harm than good. Tons of riprap has already been dumped, along with larger rocks, that collectively form a stone barrier along the beach.

Kimmell said scientific evidence shows that hard structures such as stone barriers reflect wave energy, which causes greater erosion to homeowners on both sides of the hard structure.

“Hard structures also starve the beach fronting these homes of a necessary sediment source that supports a healthy coastal dune system, which provides the most effective storm damage protection to structures on coastal dunes. And ultimately, armoring of the dune will not prevent wave run-up, overtopping and flooding during coastal storms, and erosion and undermining will occur behind the riprap,” Kimmell wrote.

Kimmell’s letter also said that if the immediate measures taken by homeowners do not comply with state regulations, DEP could order homeowners to remove the structures.

“In all likelihood, you will be required to take necessary corrective actions once the threat of winter storms has abated. This may include removing any hard structures that have been installed,” Kimmell wrote.

The letter echoed statements made by DEP spokesman Ed Coletta who said earlier this week that while his agency would not stop homeowners from protecting their homes, it would be reviewing the structures afterward.

“When the storms are over for the year, we will be coming to review what has been done. If the structures aren’t in accord with regulations, they might have to take the walls down,” Coletta said.

Instead of hard structures, Kimmell again emphasized the use of coir sand tubes as the best proactive measure to stave off erosion and protect homes. Kimmell said DEP was committed to working with homeowners, town officials and state and federal agencies to develop and implement effective solutions on Plum Island.

“In the short term, we are exploring with our partner agencies whether emergency funds can be made available to assist with effective short-term solutions, such as coir sand tubes, or other effective emergency restoration efforts,” Kimmell wrote.

Over the last few years, homeowners have already spent six-figure dollar amounts for the 40-foot-long coir bag structures. When stacked together they have given some protection, though they ultimately get torn apart by storms. Coir bags, costing as much as $140,000 to install, were placed as recently as late December in front of Annapolis Way homes as a last -ditch effort to save them. The measure, however, proved to be too little too late.

Kimmell concluded his letter with the need to look at long-term solutions to staving off beach erosion, a prospect made harder by more frequent and violent storms caused by global climate change. He suggested that homeowners might have to literally move their houses farther away from shore or lift them higher off the ground.

Publicly at least, town officials, such as Newbury selectmen Chairman Joe Story and Conservation Agent Douglas Packer, have been reluctant to comment on Kimmell’s letter. Story said selectmen were still evaluating its message, while Packer said he would leave its specifics to homeowners.