, Newburyport, MA

March 28, 2013

A good start for island's next chapter

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Tuesday night’s public meeting between Plum Island residents and a large cast of state and local officials was at times tedious, contentious and even explosive. But it was also productive and cathartic, and for those reasons alone it was worthwhile.

This was the first time, since the nor’easter slammed the coast and led to the destruction of six homes, that people had a chance to talk directly to the agencies that are making the key decisions. State agencies got to hear first-hand the compelling stories of islanders who lost their homes. It was the kind of blunt talk that one can’t forget.

There was an enormous amount of pent-up emotion. It’s clear that many people feel that state bureaucrats ignored their pleas, and refused to let homeowners take steps that they felt were time-tested ways to save the dune and their homes.

As the evening wore on, many islanders indicated they directly blame the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has permitting and enforcement powers over the beach. And they let the agency have it, with both barrels blazing. It was the kind of forum that would make anyone on the wrong side of that microphone squirm in their seats.

We were pleased to see that the commissioner of the department, Kenneth Kimmell, attended the meeting and took the criticism heaped on his department professionally. His answers were as good as one might expect — he did not make immediate decisions on the requests made to him, but he promised to put his staff to work on it immediately. And he made clear he wants to work in a spirit of cooperation.

The most potentially explosive item on the agenda — the DEP’s response to the enormous piles of stones that islanders have put on the beach and whether that action needs to be “remedied” — was dropped. It would have been like pouring gasoline onto a fire at Tuesday night’s meeting. But sometime, in the near future, it will have to be broached.

One of the key issues that several islanders are focused on is a form of beach scraping that beachfront owners had engaged in from about 1978 through 1999, when the practice was banned by the state. Islanders argued that digging out enormous swaths of sand around the low tide mark, and using it to build up the dune, saved the beach. For years it was done at homeowners’ expense. They begged for the opportunity to do it again, at their own expense.

The evidence would suggest that this “beach mining,” as it is called, worked. But whether it worked on its own, or because of other factors occurring along the coastline, we can’t say for sure. Even the experts can’t agree on where and when erosion will occur, as was noted at the meeting.

Overall, this meeting was a positive and fruitful event. Islanders finally got a chance to vent their frustrations and their well-considered ideas to officialdom, and in turn they were promised a better working relationship.

But the real proof will be in what happens tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and next year. Hopefully, a spirit of cooperation will grow.