NEWBURY — Four beachfront homes that stand on the edge of an eroding sand dune are just one major storm away from disaster, Plum Island resident Robert Connors told selectmen this week.
After hearing concerns from Connors and other island residents — as well as input from Building Commissioner Sam Joslin — the board unanimously agreed to declare a state of emergency for all homes on Plum Island. The approval was contingent on review of the declaration document by town counsel.
The four homes are located along Annapolis Way, a narrow street about 200 yards south of the Beach Center. They lost up to 10 feet of protective dune in a June nor’easter that ravaged the coast. The road has become a familiar spot for erosion problems — last year a home on the street was condemned and torn down when erosion bit into its foundation and threatened to topple it onto the beach.
The selectmen’s action now enables residents to seek permission from the Conservation Commission on July 17 that is the first step in allowing for temporary measures to protect their homes from damage by erosion forces such as high winds, waves, wave surges and high tides. The measures could include beach scraping, a method that lends support to the dune by pushing quantities of sand up the beach from the low water line, usually by bulldozer.
The practice has been banned on the Massachusetts coastline for at least a decade, but may be permissible in an officially declared emergency. In 2010 and 2011 homeowners received pushback from state and federal officials for conducting beach scraping because, they said, it was being conducted in violation of environmental law.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, toured the area on Monday night and a representative from U.S. Rep. John Tierney’s office was out there yesterday. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and Gov. Deval Patrick’s office have been notified of the problem.
In a letter to property owners on Annapolis Way dated June 25, Joslin reported that an inspection he conducted following a three-day nor’easter last month revealed the potential for a number of homes to lose their occupancy permits. The erosion that resulted from the storm has pushed back the edge of the 10-foot-high dune, compromised egresses and could result in a total loss of the structures, Joslin wrote. He urged any homeowners with a structure that is too close to the dune slope, in danger of losing an egress or that could become otherwise structurally compromised by erosion, to “take any necessary action to legally protect” their homes.
Connors and his neighbor, Thomas Nee, have used the order to bring in tons of sand, which they dumped over the edge of the dune, adding some protection to their homes.
Joslin has rescinded occupancy to homeowners in the area “a number of times,” he said following the meeting. Some have been brief — one or two days — while others have been much more serious. Erosion forced the razing of a home at 27 Annapolis Way; and a structure compromised by waves had to be taken down at 16 Northern Blvd. Joslin has also issued temporary loss of occupancy at 29 and 31 Annapolis Way; and 2, 6 and 8 Northern Blvd. Erosion has also caused problems on Southern Boulevard and Fordham Way, he noted. “Most of these structures have had temporary occupancy loss issues more than once,” Joslin said.
Nee, 37 Annapolis Way, told selectmen that in the past couple weeks erosion has crept to within 4 feet of his steps. Homes at 37, 39 and 41 Annapolis Way are “all 10 feet or less” away from peril too, said Joslin.
“One good storm could take out a number of them,” he told the board. Remediation to secure the structures would be fairly easy if the land the homes are built on wasn’t an environmentally fragile barrier island.
Connors, whose home at 39 Annapolis Way is perched atop 40-foot pilings, presented the board with a petition signed by more than 100 residents calling for town leaders to declare the island-wide emergency. The petition also asks that the governor’s office to provide immediate assistance for “quick response measures for shoreline protection and dune restoration” as well as temporary waivers for the kinds of state permitting typically required for mitigation measures in coastal areas.
Under the declaration, all town departments and boards will be instructed to “exercise regulatory flexibility” in order to “prevent irreparable damage to the environment and serious threat to life, safety, coastal beach, coastal dunes and properties.”
While properties closer to Cape Cod, like Marshfield, have received plenty of help, Connors said homes like his, located south of center on Plum Island, have yet to receive a penny of state or federal dollars for mitigation.
“Our section of the island has been in trouble for a while and we’ve been promised help, we’ve been promised sand …, ” said Connors. He presented selectmen with a letter from Philip Griffiths, undersecretary for the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, dated June 9, 2010, which identifies “significant erosion” on the island and pledges the EEA and its agencies to work with the town to resolve certain “hot spot” areas south of the town center jetty by an influx of “a significant volume of sand.”
Griffiths states that “EEA believes that the process known as beach scraping may be considered as part of an emergency measure …,” as long as it is “a component of a long-term multifaceted approach to address beach erosion.” And he promised to convene a work group with staff from his office and the town to develop the long-term approach.
“As a last resort we were promised we would be able to do what we had to save our homes,” said Connors. But instead, all he and his neighbors have received is a stop work order from state Department of Environmental Protection that flies in the face of the EEA recommendations. “That’s just incredible to me,” said Connors. He called the Northeast Regional Office of the DEP “out of touch and now out of control.”
Selectman Michael Bulgaris agreed, saying, “We have a problem with the Northeast Regional Office — I don’t know what else to say.”
Attempts to reach the DEP office yesterday were unsuccessful.
With hurricane season now under way, getting through the next 90 days is the priority, Connors stressed.
Once all local approvals are secured, the homeowners still need the governor to order waivers of state permits and the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a federal OK for the beach scraping and other measures.
The message to the state and federal governments is simple, said Connors. “ … defend our homes or step aside and let owners defend their homes with private funds. We need to stand together — if one home is in danger on Plum Island, all our homes are in danger.”
“I think the creativity of the people who own the homes should be released,” said Selectman Geoff Walker, to a rousing round of applause from the audience.