, Newburyport, MA

December 6, 2012

Plum Island is an octopus's garden to be

As I See It
Jack Garvey

---- — My address is a lie.

What maps call “Plum Island” is really a glorified sandbar, a barrier beach to protect the mainland.

Our claim to “island” is as thin as the place itself, barely a Canadian football field wide for much of its 8.5-mile length. Boats circumnavigate at high tide, satisfying the dictionary, but run aground — or amud — at low.

This went unquestioned until 1980 when Gov. Edward King commissioned a study of barrier beaches.

Recognizing the inevitability of erosion, it proposed buy-outs for residents to relocate and a ban on further “development in hazard-prone barrier beach areas.”

Then came a bi-partisan tidal wave of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” and Michael Dukakis’ “Massachusetts Miracle,” a dual Zeitgeist of “You can have it all” that brooked no economic concessions to environmental concerns.

Economically speaking, the word “island” has swept away more than one barrier.

Cottages outgrew all flora and fauna. Some were built over or were jacked up and built under. Others remained intact until additions were habitable, and then disappeared in favor of larger, more stylish additions to the additions.

By the early `90s, the transformation was complete. What was ridiculed as “Slum Island” well into the `70s now sported a long row of beachfront McMansions.

With no connection to municipal water, we drew slightly salted groundwater for bathrooms and kitchen sinks.

For drinking, a fire hydrant was tapped nine months each year on the mainland side of the only bridge that connects us. Winter was, well, different.

Unwilling to cope with such inconvenience, new residents pushed for a water and sewer project. Older residents, still cognizant of Gov. King’s study, not to mention their own eyes and common sense, fought them for at least 15 years.

Getting the hook-up required deft tactical maneuvers. At the April 2001 Newbury Town Meeting, stick-on dots served as proof of residency. Seeing they were outnumbered, proponents “lost” their dots.

The “do-over” pushed the Tuesday meeting past midnight, and many with work and family schedules left before the vote.

Five months later, the selectmen approved “betterments.” For some reason, the opposition didn’t show at a meeting that went ahead as scheduled on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.

Proponents got lucky again in 2003 when a woman with a corporate fortune and visions of “Miami Beach North” arrived and bought every property she could talk into sale.

Gentrification? The “blue-collar resort,” Walton’s Ocean Front, soon turned “blue,” upper crust apparently preferring lower case.

No sooner was Plum Island’s “Big Dig” water project complete in 2008 than a November nor’easter shook one cottage from its foundations, and the town hurried to remove it before the next high tide.

One year later, the Newbury Conservation Commission approved the owner’s petition to rebuild on the very site. In January ‘10, the state Department of Environmental Protection put that folly on hold.

Following a brutal storm a month later, public access to the beach at the center was closed. The sign to that effect had to be re-located due to erosion on, of all days, the Ides of March.

In 2010, a December nor’easter put yet another home on the front page with the banner headline: “Teetering on the brink”

Not to worry. According to a letter last month: “Mother Nature, rising sea level or global warming is not causing primary dune erosion.”

The headline, “Lack of jetty maintenance to blame for PI erosion” (Nov. 23), is an unavoidable reference to the Army Corps of Engineers’ dime and time — contradicting repeated claims that advocates of “beach scraping” expect no taxpayer expense.

Also revealing: “(A) skeptical theory of a negative environmental impact” exists only to justify “the salaries and further research for these government agencies,” which “thrive on the publicity of a home dropping into the ocean because it bolsters their theory.”

That may explain why MassDEP has reversed its earlier ruling, making Plum Island the first geographical entity of any kind on Earth and in history where powers-that-be deem it safe to build a house on the same tract of land that cannot hold a post on which to put a sign.

Such is my address. Sounds like a river in Africa. And that’s no lie.


Jack Garvey can be reached at