NEWBURY — Selectmen voted unanimously to declare a state of emergency in four areas of Plum Island during a special meeting at Town Hall last night.
“It’s a first step in convincing regulatory agencies and the government that we are serious, and that we have a serious concern for our citizens down there and for our infrastructure,” said Newbury conservation agent Doug Packer. “There is a public safety concern. There is a public health concern. So I think it was certainly warranted.”
The four areas the declaration covers are from the center island groin to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.
“If you include the whole island, I think you water it down somewhat,” Packer said of the declaration.
A standing-room-only crowd attended the special meeting last night to discuss how Plum Island residents weathered the latest nor’easter last week and what could be done to keep people and property there safe as the coming weekend promises to bring more danger.
After watching six homes fall into the sea last year, many residents have taken it upon themselves to build rock barriers to keep the raging waters at bay. With last week’s storm coinciding with astronomical high tides and with no homes or power lost, it seems at the moment that the strategy has worked.
“So far, the rocks are working,” said Selectman Geoff Walker. “So far, the areas we are most concerned about now are the ones that do not have rocks in place and we are trying to find solutions to fill the gaps and move forward on some minor repairs that can be done on areas that have a little damage. That is all we are looking for.
“There are still meetings going on in Boston,” Walker added. “We are going to meet with the city of Newburyport. We are all working diligently to try to find solutions.”
Within the areas of concern is the Bennett Hill House, which currently overlooks the Atlantic atop a 25-foot cliff of sand. The possibility of declaring the cottage a historic landmark was also discussed last night, since it was built in 1880 and is in imminent danger. The wave energy on Saturday could be equal to the wave energy generated during last week’s storm, weather forecasters say.
The cottage’s owner, John Bennett, said that the building is historic and it is the longest-owned beach house on the island.
“I really don’t want to see it go over the hill,” Bennett said. “If we’re going to save it, it has to be a process that is really quick.”
Resident Ralph Cox pledged $2,500 at the meeting to help the effort to save the house.
One of the biggest concerns for both the selectmen and homeowners in attendance was the ability to work with the state Department of Environmental Protection. Selectmen chairman Joe Story urged residents to write Gov. Patrick on the urgency of the current situation.
“It’s really frustrating sitting here as a selectman not being able to do something about this,” Story said.