NEWBURY — “Are we going to run and retreat or stand up and fight the erosion?”
That was the question Selectmen Chairman Joe Story posed last week to his colleagues during an update on the status of emergency efforts to save homes and property on Plum Island in the wake of recent damaging storms.
Ultimately, the board agreed to ask consulting engineer David Vine of GZA Environmental Inc. in Newburyport to create an analysis of possible alternatives for the beach erosion issues on Plum Island.
Vine, who has been involved in numerous projects in Newbury — especially on the barrier island — will work closely with Conservation Agent Doug Packard to draft a document that will eventually be presented to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Erosion problems on Plum Island reached crisis level late last month when four homes on Annapolis Way were deemed uninhabitable. Homeowners, town employees and contractors worked frantically to install tube-like coir sandbags and wood cribbing in an effort to stave off further destruction from a pending storm.
Selectman Michael Bulgaris said he believes the town bears responsibility for helping to keep Plum Island residents from losing their homes, adding that the properties under natural attack are an important part of the community’s tax base.
“I think we have an obligation to help,” Bulgaris said.
Selectman Geoffrey Walker said the willingness of state officials to speak with the town raised the possibility of developing a “sustainable coastline plan” for the long term. He said if selectmen didn’t seize the opportunity, “we’re going to look stupid.”
Packard said the door for a conversation with state officials about rising sea levels and the impact they are having on beach erosion has been opened wider, thanks in part to efforts by Story. He said if the board doesn’t follow through on that opening and meet with the state, “I don’t think you can complain afterward.”
Selectman David Mountain said there is no dispute that sea levels will continue to rise, although to what extent is not fully known.
He said if, in the long-term, the worst predictions come to pass, “I’m sorry, but I think we’re going to have to retreat.”
Packard said he believes it is reasonable to plan on the moderate to severe end of the predicted sea level rise, noting Plum Island is losing about 2 feet per year to erosion. Selectman Chuck Bear suggested the town should issue a letter now to the state Department of Transportation to express possible future interest in securing rocks from a state-owned pile located locally.
Saying beach erosion problems are not limited to Plum Island, Mountain suggested Newbury might join forces with other communities to find solutions. Story reported that a meeting with officials in Duxbury was already in the works.
In the wake of last October’s Superstorm Sandy, the largest and second costliest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, Mountain said there is bound to be a national conversation about how to advance solutions and remedies to beach erosion and the rising of oceans. He said solutions that are matched to a 10-year time frame would be the most effective.
Walker said he will be evaluating responses from officials in the communities hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy, including those along the New Jersey shoreline to see what suggestions or insight they can offer Newbury
“I would be willing to bet they’re not going to retreat,” Story responded.
Walker called on residents to consider creative solutions to the erosion problem, which selectmen plan to discuss again at their next meeting on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.