NEWBURY — Homeowners in vulnerable sectors of Plum Island met with state officials last night, and by evening’s end they heard Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Ken Kimmel say that he will consider their thoughts and provide answers soon.
That likely wasn’t the decisive answer that most wanted to hear, but it did coincide with a recurring theme islanders are facing: If they are going to get aid from the government, they must deal with a wall of paperwork and approvals.
That said, many homeowners asked for the permission to take action at their own expense.
A standing-room-only crowd of almost 200 filled the Firemen’s Memorial Hall for the opportunity to hear decision-makers from the DEP, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Coastal Zone Management office.
The agenda of the session specifically stated that “enforcement actions and existing mitigation will not be discussed at this meeting.”
So no exchange took place about the massive rock pilings that have been put into place in front of the dunes on the south end of the beach within the last 10 days.
Moderator was state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who co-chairs the Merrimack River Beach Alliance.
He repeatedly urged the audience to be civil, listen to the speakers and ask questions at the end of the session.
Longtime resident Steve Bandoian became emotional as he recounted the loss of his house at 41 Annapolis Way, and criticized DEP officials for what he said was their delay and/or refusal to permit homeowners to take protective action at their own expense. His impassioned comments drew loud applause and shouts of support and encouragement.
But others in the audience, who appeared to be suffering through various degrees of frustration, were generally receptive as they heard a range of suggestions on how they can save their homes.
Marc Sarkady, a spokesman for the Plum Island Foundation, implored members of the DEP to permit residents to “mine” sand at low tide and relocate it near seaside homes as a means of building back protective dunes.
Cheryl Jones-Comeau, a resident of 40 Fordham Way, was enlisted to show photos of the improvement she said that mining had produced after the Blizzard of ’78.
Jones-Comeau said the process worked for more than three decades until the DEP put an end to the practice in 1999. After that point, islanders saw a gradual decay of the dunes, which climaxed in the loss of six homes during the fierce nor’easter earlier this month.
“You dig a lot of sand at low tide, enough to bury a battleship,” she told the two dozen local and state officials who had gathered, “and within two or three tides, the areas are re-filled.
“Please give us permission to do this; we’ll unite and we’ll pay for it.”
Sarkady, noting that he was missing a Passover observance at home, reached back into biblical lore to add lightly, “Let our people go; let us do this.”
The DEP has extended permits for beach “scraping” but generally only approves one at a time. Kimmell said his team would study Sarkady’s proposal and get back to residents soon.
If “mining” was the residents’ suggestion, Newbury’s building inspector, Sam Joslin, said that one of the town’s solutions is for homeowners to raise structures on stanchions to evade high water in the future.
Joslin stated that about 30 houses had been under duress when the final of four winter storms surged onto the beach.
Six houses are gone. Six more are in the process of being elevated. About seven more “will be fairly easy to elevate or move to another part of the property.”
Joslin said that about 11 houses will have problems, because their parcel is too small for relocation or the structure is too unstable to elevate.
He urged homeowners to come to his office and work with town officials on solutions.
Only one homeowner has expressed an interest to sell the property and leave the island, said Bob Connors, a spokesmen for many homeowners.
Scott MacLeod, manager for MEMA’s mitigation and disaster recovery division, said that financial aid is available for homeowners who want to upgrade and improve their beleaguered homes.
Applications must be originated through the town, not individually, and MacLeod noted that the grants could cover 75 percent of costs if approved.
The applications eventually must go through the state MEMA office, and then the Federal Emergency Management Agency will run a cost-benefit analysis.
MacLeod conceded that much planning and paperwork is required. He also noted that three of the four federal programs that fund this state program are being revised in Washington.
Tarr said that this group, which included all Newbury’s selectmen, Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday and Salisbury Selectman Jerry Klima, will meet again.
No date was announced, and it was clear that all questions and concerns had not been answered regarding this multi-faceted and perilous situation.