The sudden spate of erosion on Plum Island in the Annapolis Way neighborhood makes it imperative that our local, state and federal governments alter their plans to replenish the beach with sand. Nature is changing the game plan, and government needs to act fast to keep up.
In less than a month, the dunes in front of Annapolis Way — a curvy side road that fronts the ocean — have lost at least 25 feet of sand. Two homes now sit perilously close to the edge, while others along the road edge closer to the precipice.
Plans are under way to pump sand onto another vulnerable area a few hundred yards to the north, around the Beach Center. But there is no plan to mitigate the unexpected problems on Annapolis Way. At the least, it seems that the same sandbag system used to successfully protect the Center could be used in the short term, followed by a modified plan for beach replenishment when a contractor is hired by the Army Corps of Engineers.
There's been vocal debate over whether it is wise to save beachfront homes, or to allow people to build on beachfront dunes at all. Critics are right to say that beach replenishment is a multimillion-dollar cost that does not provide a permanent solution.
But this is a question that can't be answered with a simple broad brush policy. The events of the past few weeks add to the large body of evidence that says we can't predict where erosion will occur, we can only react. That has been the strategy of the past several decades, as our government has built sandbag barriers, jetties, granite groins, concrete barriers, plowed sand and pumped sand in order to alter the flow of erosion. It's a strategy that has worked in many cases and failed in others.
Today, the stakes are higher than they've ever been. The simple cottages of years ago are now million-dollar properties whose owners pay a large share of Newbury's taxes. For example, the half-dozen waterfront homes on Annapolis Way pay about $63,000 in property taxes. Losing these homes will be felt by every taxpayer in town. The low-cost summertime island of the old days has become a real estate enclave assessed at over a half-billion dollars. Letting nature "take its course" would have a stunning financial impact on Newbury and Newburyport, not to mention the enormous property losses that Plum Islanders would personally suffer.
Erosion on Plum Island, and the loss of homes, is nothing new. Reports of homes being destroyed by erosion go back more than 100 years. There may come a time when the island becomes unable to be saved. That hasn't happened yet.
In the meantime, we should continue to redirect Mother Nature and try to protect the enormous investment that Plum Island has become.
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