For a second season, Newburyport and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation laid down heavy, rubber pathways on two beach access points on Plum Island to mitigate sand dune erosion, but members of the city’s Commission on Disabilities are concerned wheelchair users are unable to roll through sand onto the mats.
The beach and dunes on the north end of Plum Island are eroding at a rapid rate, according to city officials. To help preserve the dunes, which protect island buildings and roads from coastal flooding, DCR officials recently rolled out “Mobi-Mats” for a second year to prevent erosion and protect surrounding vegetation, which helps stabilize dunes.
The rubber mats are part of a project the National Wildlife Federation, the University of New Hampshire, DCR and the city have been working on to restore the dunes, prevent erosion, reduce flooding and improve beach access for all visitors, said Julia Godtfredsen, the city’s conservation administrator.
“It’s a fast-changing environment out there so annual review is needed to assess each path every season to ensure it is still usable if open or if a path can be reopened,” said Ward 1 City Councillor Sharif Zeid, whose ward includes Plum Island.
Although the pathway is meant to serve as a walkway for beach visitors, Jennie Donahue, chair of the city’s Commission on Disabilities, noted that wheelchair users had a difficult time accessing the path when the mats were laid down in 2017 because of a 3-foot gap of sand between the pavement and the mats.
“The idea of saying, ‘Let’s put this down’ was negated by the way they put them down last year,” Donahue said. “Ideally, the mat should come right up to the edge of the pavement so there isn’t a gap of sand.”
The state office of Coastal Zone Management provided a $131,530 grant for the public access way inventory and assessment and the analysis project, Godtfredsen said. With this grant, the city was able to produce maps and signs in addition to laying down the Mobi-Mats.
Seven pathways were selected by the public and serve as designated beach access routes, Godtfredsen said.
For two paths, one near the parking lot at Plum Island Point and the other near 69th Street and Reservation Terrace, 50-foot Mobi-Mats were laid down by DCR. There wasn’t enough money to buy mats for all of the pathways, however. Godtfredsen said leftover materials were laid down at the access points at 53rd and 57th streets.
“The purpose of them is to encourage people to walk on the pathways to get to the beach that will not harm the dunes rather than traipsing all over them,” Godtfredsen said. “We would like to, in the future, be able to purchase more Mobi-Mats to make it easier for folks to get to the beach. It’s just something that requires more funding.”
Despite the ability for dune grass to withstand 80 mph winds, Godtfredsen noted its fragility. Dune grass is planted to collect blowing sand, which then helps to build up the sand dunes. When visitors cross through the dune grass to get to the beach, Godtfredsen said people may not realize the damage that’s being done to the root of the plant.
“They’re very sensitive to that kind of foot traffic and pressure,” Godtfredsen said. “That’s why it’s really important to use the signage and designated pathways and to keep off any vegetation.”
Donahue said the Mobi-Mats were a “great idea” not only to preserve sand dunes but to offer beach access to all visitors, including those who use wheelchairs.
The problem is that the rubber pathways were set back too far from the street and must have been laid down beginning from the beach side, so they didn’t line up properly with the pavement, she said.
Zeid also said he noticed a gap between the parking lot and the beginning of the Mobi-Mat at Plum Island Point in 2017.
“The biggest challenge is that it’s a dynamic environment, so things are always changing so we need to keep at it and having great process around path management to protect the dunes and preserve and enhance access for all,” Zeid said.
Troy Wall, director of communications for DCR, noted the difficulty for visitors in wheelchairs and made an effort when the mats were rolled out in late June to make sure there is a smoother transition.
“Stone dust has been placed where the Mobi-Mat and the parking lot connect,” Wall said. “This material will allow for a smoother transition that meets ADA requirements.”
Despite this, the Mobi-Mat located at 69th Street and Reservation Terrace does offer a steep drop-off from the dune to the pavement. In addition, the mat does not fully reach the pavement from the dune.
Donahue said the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, James Bone, is assessing the layout of the Mobi-Mats and the topic will be discussed at the next Commission on Disabilities meeting.
In terms of progress, Godtfredsen said it’s difficult to measure due to the rough storms Plum Island faced over the winter, resulting in severe damage to the dunes. But Godtfredsen said city officials have seen the area surrounding the Mobi-Mats become healthier and better vegetated.
“In that sense, it’s probably helping,” she said.
Amanda Getchell covers Newburyport and Seabrook. Follow her on Twitter @ajgetch.