PLUM ISLAND — Thousands of people gathered at Tendercrop Farm last month to watch a massive pile of discarded Christmas trees from across the region go up in smoke as part of the Old Newbury Bonfire fundraiser.
While the well-attended event served as a successful fundraiser for the Newbury Fire Department, could the burning of thousands of Christmas trees be depriving Plum Island residents of an inexpensive method of protecting their shoreline and perhaps stopping their houses from falling into the Atlantic?
The city of Long Beach, N.Y., battered by Hurricane Sandy last October, may hold the answer to that question.
In January, Long Beach city workers and volunteers met on one of the city’s beaches that forms a small buffer between the Long Island community and the Atlantic Ocean and deposited thousands of Christmas trees along the shore. Their hope is that the trees will accumulate blowing sand and eventually become the foundation for a new system of sand dunes.
On Plum Island, a surprisingly powerful storm in December ripped away several feet of sand from the coastline, placing four Annapolis Way homes in danger of collapsing into the ocean.
Over the next few days, work crews hired by the homeowners scrambled to install a series of tube-like sandbags or coir bags along the beach to protect those homes.
It is estimated the coir bags alone cost between $120,000 and $140,000 with the town pitching in $10,000 for engineering costs related to the emergency efforts.
As recently as October, state and local officials expressed confidence that Annapolis Way homes were safer thanks to recent beach replenishment efforts known as beach scraping. But the December surge proved that the expansive beach scraping effort that required state and federal approval appeared to be fruitless.
Long Beach spokesman Gordon Tapper said the Christmas tree idea came from residents who had heard of it being successfully implemented in other beach communities across the country.
“We’ve embraced it, it was a great community event.” Tapper said, adding city officials were pleased with the outpouring of support for the project.
But Tapper said it was too early to tell whether the trees would capture enough sand to re-nourish city beaches ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
“So far, so good,” Tapper said.
Plum Island officials and residents are less convinced the idea will work.
Newbury Conservation Agent Doug Packer, who also works in the same capacity for Newburyport, said the idea of using Christmas trees to replenish dunes on Plum Island was briefly considered years ago, but never gained much traction.
Packer said his main concern with the idea was that after trees are stripped bare, the butt ends could become dislodged and turn into a churning mass of wood, damaging coir bags already in place.
“What are they now? They are projectiles,” Packer said of what he envisioned as a potential down side. However, he added, if an individual resident wanted to put their Christmas tree on the beach, “I’d be OK with that.”
In fact, some Plum Island residents have been known in the past to plant their Christmas trees along the beach as an alternative to beach fencing, Newbury selectmen Chairman Joe Story said. And years ago, several trees were deposited on the beach near the south end.
But Story echoed Packer’s concerns about the wisdom of dumping thousands of trees on a beach that is often bombarded by extremely powerful waves and wind.
“If we put them during a storm? Look at the waves down there,” Story said.
Annapolis Way homeowner Bob Connors said he had heard of the Christmas tree idea but never really considered it for his beachfront property.
“In a high wave or direct unprotected waters, the benefit might be limited,” Connors said.
Packer said his office is continually on the lookout for ideas that would be an improvement over the current thinking of coir bags and beach scrapping. Recently, he has researched beach-saving ideas being implemented in other parts of the country as well as South Africa, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
“You’ve got to think outside the box,” Packer said.