NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 28, 2014

Barrier in place for PI landmark

More fundraisers planned for Bennett Hill cottage

By Dave Rogers
Staff Writer

---- — PLUM ISLAND — Shoring efforts around the iconic Bennett Hill House were completed over the weekend, leaving the 19th-century landmark with a massive rock barrier between the house and the ocean 25 feet below.

Yesterday, however, work continued, as earth movers placed more rocks in front of its next-door residence located adjacent to Plum Island Center.

The barrier represents what was likely the last and best chance to save the house, part of the Bennett family since 1910, from experiencing the same fate as six other houses that fell into the ocean last March after a series of storms eroded enough beach to rip them away.

Using a private parking lot across Plum island Center as a staging area, work crews from Jamco Excavators of South Hampton began hauling large boulders onto the beach area Jan. 17 and dumping them in front of the house sitting precariously close to the edge of a 25-foot-tall dune.

Work was temporarily halted Wednesday as a result of a swift-moving winter storm that pummeled the beach with strong winds, but didn’t bring the same kind of high tides as last March’s storm. Bennett Hill caretaker John Bennett said the storm changed the shape of the beach below his house, but it wasn’t strong enough to reach what was left of the dune.

With Bennett Hill now buffeted by hundreds of rocks, work crews yesterday focused their attention next door. The loud crunching sound of boulders being dumped onto the beach and then scooped by a massive earth mover could be heard hundreds of yards away. Onlookers stood and watched as the machines performed their tasks.

The money to pay for the massive endeavor came from many sources, according to a Jamco Excavators foreman, including neighbors who stepped up to help the Bennett family keep their house.

“It’s still pretty emotional for me and my family,” Bennett said yesterday.

Bennett said the final cost of the work has yet to be determined. A series of fundraisers, including an all-day affair at the Plum Island Beachcoma, is expected to help reimburse neighbors. The latest fundraiser, organized by two of Bennett’s sons, is a polar plunge into the ocean next month.

The Save Bennett Hill Polar Plunge is scheduled for Feb. 15 with participants raising money through sponsorships. One hundred percent of proceeds will go directly toward the shoring efforts, according to organizers. For more information on the plunge, visit the Save Bennett Hill Facebook page.

“I don’t think I’m going to jump into that one,” Bennett said, jokingly.

Bennett Hill has been owned by the Bennett family since 1910 when George Bennett purchased the building before buying the land in 1921. Since then, three generations of Bennetts have spent many of their summers inside the house, all along keeping the house as close to its original state as possible. It is a prominent landmark on Plum Island.

Last March, homeowners threatened with the loss of homes paid tens of thousands of dollars to install a series of large rocks in front of their beachfront homes. The move, which came after the six houses were lost, was done without the approval of the Department of Environmental Protection, which has been against the installation of hard surface barriers, but the state did not interfere.

Those rocks, according to selectman chairman Joe Story, helped prevent further property damage after a large winter storm earlier this month brought enormous waves and carved out large sections of beach. Homes not protected by the rocky barriers seemed to have fared badly, and one house lost a deck.

Earlier this month, selectmen voted unanimously to declare states of emergency in four areas of Plum Island, saying it was the first step in convincing DEP and other regulatory agencies that the community was serious in protecting the island’s infrastructure.

Bennett said while other homeowners were placing rock barriers in front of their properties, he demurred, as he had recently spent $16,000 on massive sandbags only to see them fall apart and disappear into the ocean.