, Newburyport, MA

May 3, 2014

Beacon Hill Steps In

Lawmakers poised to allow landmark marsh boathouse to be demolished, replaced with home

By Christian Wade
Statehouse reporter

---- — BOSTON — For years, the run-down wooden boathouse off Plum Island Turnpike, with its sagging roof and salt-weathered shingles, has warned motorists heading to the island there is “no evacuation possible” in a nuclear disaster.

But the old Newbury boathouse could finally have a date with the wrecking ball, under legislation approved Thursday by the Massachusetts Senate.

Owner Jack Van Loan wants to demolish the 57-year-old structure at 41 Plum Island Turnpike and replace it with a single-family house. Massachusetts Environmental officials have blocked his plans, saying the project would destroy state-protected salt marsh.

The legislation, which must still be approved by the House, allows the structure to be torn down and a new house built on the site. Van Loan will also need the consent of the town’s zoning board.

“I’m just trying to get it rebuilt and I’ve run into roadblocks all along the way,” said Van Loan, a carpenter, who said he bought the property in 1987 for $52,000 for use as a workshop. “There doesn’t seem to be any concern for property rights.”

The boathouse, built in 1956, is known to most for the large, red-lettered sign that hung from its roofline for decades reminding people on their way to Plum Island that the island could not be quickly evacuated in the event of an emergency at the Seabrook nuclear power plant. Van Loan is an environmentalist and opponent of the power plant.

Plum Island Turnpike provides the island’s only vehicle and pedestrian access and egress.

Van Loan said he took the sign down because he felt the political message might hurt his chances of getting approval from the legislature. If he builds the house, he said he might incorporate a similar anti-nuke sign in the design.

Newbury officials ordered the building demolished in the spring of 2008 but later gave Van Loan a reprieve when he agreed to stabilize the structure. It was sinking into the marsh because the pilings supporting it were buckling.

One year later, Van Loan proposed demolishing the old house and replacing it with a new house featuring a boardwalk in another location on the one-acre property. But that idea was rejected by the Newbury Conservation Commission. He unsuccessfully appealed to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP said the area is a vital salt marsh habitant for birds and marine life, which are protected from any project that would “destroy any portion of the salt marsh or have an adverse effect on the productivity of salt marsh.” The agency determined at the time that Van Loan’s project would destroy at least 1,022 square feet of marsh.

“It is also MassDEP’s opinion that the shading effect from the construction of the boardwalk, single-family dwelling and deck would result in the permanent destruction of salt marsh vegetation,” the state agency said in a 2009 letter.

Van Loan came back a few months later with a proposal to build the new house on the existing footprint, which would reduce the amount of salt-marsh vegetation destroyed. The town’s Conservation Commission approved the plan.

But the DEP rejected the new proposal, citing a 1886 state environmental law regulating coastal development. DEP said the law prevents rebuilding anywhere on the property unless there’s a “water-dependent” use for the new structure. Town officials said their hands were tied on the issue.

“We have no problem with his current proposal, but the state won’t allow it because of wetlands protections,” said Douglas Packer, chairman of the town’s Conservation Commission. “His only option was to pursue state legislation.”

So Van Loan took his fight to Beacon Hill.

He convinced town officials to sponsor a home rule petition exempting the project from the state’s wetland protection act. The request was approved by Town Meeting in 2012 and State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, filed the legislation of his behalf.

Van Loan said he is paying a required annual water and sewer assessment for the property — roughly $17,000 over 20 to 30 years at a rate of 2 to 2.65 percent interest — even though he doesn’t use water and sewer at the boathouse.

“I’m not going to spend my money to rebuild it as a workshop,” he said. “Either I rebuild it as a house, or tear it down.”