, Newburyport, MA

March 20, 2013

Pendulum of logic swings wildly on Plum Island

Newburyport Daily News

---- — We look at what has happened on Plum Island over the past few months, and we see a man-made pendulum that continues to swing wildly from extreme to extreme. It has to stop. A solution based on cooperation and mutual understanding needs to be found.

For months, homeowners along the most imperiled stretch of beach just south of the Island Center had been trying to get approval from the state to shore up the crumbling dunes on which their homes sit. Many were frustrated by how they were treated by the state — their requests were sat on “under review,” even as the urgency of their situation became more apparent. Some of the same old delay tactics that have visited our coast in the past, such as bureaucratic hoops concerning piping plover habitat, were thrown up as roadblocks. Anger and frustration simmered at a government agency that seemed more interested in its own bureaucratic mechanisms than in helping homeowners who were reaching out for help.

Then came the nor’easter of March 7-9, and the worst fears came to pass. More than 20 feet of dune was stripped away over the course of four high tides. Two homes tumbled over; four others were so badly compromised they had to be torn down. More than 30 homes now found themselves on or near the dune precipice. The national media’s spotlight fell on Plum Island.

The anger and frustration over this traumatic event vented at a public hearing. A tremendous amount of outrage was expressed at the state Department of Environmental Protection. It didn’t help matters that the agency didn’t bother to send anyone to the meeting, which only furthered the perception that the agency is out of touch with homeowners and is unwilling to listen to criticism.

Now, the pendulum has swung wildly to the extreme.

It’s clear that the DEP has chosen, or been ordered, to back off. Now it’s allowing a shocking change to occur along 2/3-mile stretch of beach. Homeowners are spending tens of thousands of dollars to dump tons of stone, build walls and take apparently whatever steps they want to protect their homes.

The seaside dune now looks more like a stone quarry than a barrier beach. It may give some matter of protection to the homes, but it has changed the dynamic of what a barrier beach is, and it has created a man-made blight on a beautiful stretch of coastline.

The state DEP has said it will retroactively check to make sure that laws were followed, and if laws were broken, homeowners will be responsible for removing stone or whatever needs to be done.

Talk about back-seat driver government. This is a state agency that has lost both its carrot and its stick — the public’s faith in it is non-existent, as is its ability to wisely apply and enforce state rules.

It’s long been whispered among our local officials that the DEP is a particularly difficult agency to deal with. It does not tolerate criticism well, and is resistant to working closely and cooperatively. That’s a mind-set that needs to change.

It is clear that the time has come for a truly cooperative relationship to emerge between our local governments, our local citizens and the state DEP. The nonsense has to end. A responsive and responsible solution is needed.

It may well be that Plum Island is fighting a battle against the sea that can’t be won. But the past has shown us that erosion patterns change over time, and perhaps the dunes will heal and grow as they have in the past. In the meantime, homeowners ought to be able to make reasonable attempts to save their homes, while at the same time being held to acceptable standards.