, Newburyport, MA

January 10, 2014

Unintended consequences of PI rock walls

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

The further erosion issues on Plum Island caused by the recent New Year’s storm appears to prove two things: Homeowners who took measures to protect their individual homes with rock barriers may have succeeded and that individual measures taken to protect those homes may have had the unintended consequence of exacerbating the erosion at the properties that did not.

As a 34-year resident of Plum Island, I have witnessed the comings and goings of this beautiful barrier island, sometimes in awe, other times with serious concern as to the Island’s future. Last year, as I watched the homeowners on the southern end of the Island fortify their properties with rock walls, I had to ask myself, “What would you do in a similar situation?” My answer was, “I would do the same thing.”

Those homeowners did what they had to do to try to protect their investments and did so against the wishes of state government agencies, particularly the DEP, which considers threatened properties constructed on a barrier beach “acceptable losses.” They were also aware that they could incur the wrath of these government agencies and could threaten the critical relationship the Town of Newbury has with the DEP.

Unfortunately, for reasons I am not aware of, the project was not well thought out or completed. For whatever reason — maybe fear of retribution from the DEP or simply lack of money — some homeowners, including the owners of the iconic Bennett Hill property, opted out of the project. It is obvious that those homeowners have now suffered from that decision and their properties are in serious trouble. It’s difficult to prove that the adjacent fortified properties actually caused the exacerbation of the erosion on the unfortified areas, but this was one of the reasons given by the DEP and many other coastal experts why individual, rather than properly engineered projects, don’t work or can have unintended consequences.

Rightfully so, the Newbury selectmen are meeting to discuss this serious issue and to gather information relating to what the town can do to prevent damage to important infrastructure, especially the sewer and water system. What the town should do is to continue its support of the affected homeowner’s efforts and aid them with guidance as to how this effort can be completed properly.

What I do not support is the use of taxpayer funding to support homeowners who took things into their own hands but did not fully consider the consequences or complete the job. Those homeowners need to continue their efforts and rectify the mistakes made without relying on taxpayer largesse. So far, the Town of Newbury has not suffered any consequence from the DEP as a result of individual homeowners acting on their own. If the town engages in funding of these efforts — therefore endorsing those efforts — that may change quickly.

Bob Watt

Plum Island, Newbury