, Newburyport, MA

January 5, 2013

Saving Plum island homes


---- — NEWBURY — Defenders of Plum Island, concluding that beach-scraping is not an effective long-term tool against coastal erosion, yesterday agreed to pursue the possibility of putting “hard structures” such as walls or piles of rock on the beach.

Discussion of this tactic took place at a meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, at which local, state and federal officials — along with beachfront residents —acknowledged that long-range solutions are needed to preserve houses near the ocean.

Noting that aggregations of rock and/or cement pieces have been deposited on the beachfront in past eras, leaders said they are researching whether such hard-to-move matter can be approved in modern times.

“We are going to fully, fully look into this option,” said state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who is co-chair of the volunteer organization. “There may be a path forward that provides a longer-term approach.”

Tarr, a lawyer, said that the MRBA is attempting to “evolve the regulations” in seeking approvals to save beachside homes. He was not specific in exactly what kind of “wall” would be proposed.

State and federal guidelines generally prohibit the introduction of foreign materials that might damage the quality of the beach and dunes.

Indeed, town officials here went through numerous steps last month to obtain permits that enabled them to scrape the beach in front of homes on vulnerable Annapolis Way.

But an unexpectedly harsh nor’easter last week caused significant damage along the beach, tearing away 10 to 20 horizontal feet of dunes. Four residences on that thoroughfare have had some of the dune they sit on torn away and their basements undermined. Several others are now perilously close to the edge of the dune. The crisis has numerous officials seeking solutions that might be more effective than beach-scraping, sand-bagging and snow-fencing.

In recent days, a dozen homeowners have contracted with a Lexington company to install sand envelopes, also known as sand tubes or sandbags, in front of the dunes on Annapolis Way. The sandbags are about 30 feet long and provide some protection from the waves, but will not save them from a strong storm.

That sandbagging work is under way, but residents yesterday pressed for a more permanent solution.

“Town officials and emergency workers did a great job,” said Steve Batchelder, who owns a residence at 35 Annapolis Way. “But we need a longer-range solution.”

One new plan is that of Tarr and others, which would call for the aggregation of rocks or rock walls on the beach.

“I’ve called the governor’s office and Bruce is also working very hard on this,” said Joe Story, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “We are looking into ways to introduce hard material.”

Last week’s storm exposed tons of rock and concrete that was dumped on the beach near Annapolis Way in the 1970s, at a time when that neighborhood was undergoing an erosion crisis similar to today. One complete wall has been exposed, but most of the rest is a jumble of rocks and concrete that now lie on the beach or are partly buried in the remaining dune.

Newbury town officials said they think beach-scraping is a short-term solution. When it was noted that sand is aggregating near the south jetty, in Newburyport, several panel members suggested that Newbury town workers travel north along the beach and bring back some excess sand for their beaches.

However, Andy Port, planning director for the city of Newburyport, attempted to sandbag that proposal.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for one town to enter another, and move sand down the beach,” said Port. He stated that the beach is always changing, and a beach with excess one week might evolve into a sector with no sand the next week.

Officials stated that a beach sector in Newburyport, at the east end of 57th Street, is under duress from erosion, as is the beach in front of 2 and 4 Northern Blvd. in Newbury.

At the meeting, engineers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that the fortification of the south jetty is “going well.” About 2,500 tons of stone have been placed on the jetty out of a projected total of 10,800 tons.

The project will strengthen the jetty for about 700 feet east (not the 1,000 feet as once announced), and about 7 feet will be added to the height of the stone structure, officials said. About 15 truckloads visit the site each weekday.

It’s believed that the jetty has a significant influence over erosion on the island and that a repaired jetty will help to stave off erosion.