Plum Island residents will lose battle with the sea, author says
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Like living creatures, they pulsate, stretch, shift, expand, and recede.
Barrier beaches such as Plum Island are fascinating and romantic formations, according to author, naturalist, and Ipswich resident William Sargent.
But, as he posits in his new book, “Beach Wars: Ten Thousand Years of Conflict and Change on a Barrier Beach,” when permanent structures are built, it disrupts their natural flow and function: to protect the mainland and absorb the brunt of the brutal force of the wind and sea.
Such is the case with Plum Island, Sargent says.
The finger of land shared by Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, and Newburyport should be slowly given back to nature, Sargent contends, a notion — not surprisingly — its residents reject.
The homes and other structures that cover it “don’t allow the beach to move,” said Sargent, “so it can’t re-form. You lose that ability of the barrier beach to rebuild itself.”
Plum Island’s battle against the sea, illuminated by every intense storm, took on a tone of personal tragedy when Geraldine Buzzotta lost her home in 2008.
Short-term emergency measures to literally stem the tide in recent years have included installation of enormous hay-bale and sandbag walls, as well as a $5.5 million dredging project in 2010 that deposited more than 110,000 cubic yards of sandy sediment onto the beach.
Now comes a larger — and much-anticipated — measure of relief: The US Army Corps of Engineers has issued the first permit to allow beach scraping to protect five properties on Annapolis Way, work that was tentatively expected to start this week.
But according to Sargent, the first director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, who has taught science writing at Harvard University and marine biology at the Briarwood Field Station in Bourne, these efforts will prove largely futile.
“I hate to be the one that says this, but they’re all short-term and ultimately they’re not going to work,” said the author of about a dozen books, and whose “Beach Wars” focuses mostly on the culture, people, and tragedies that befell the barrier beach of Chatham.
Still, Sargent’s suggestion of retreating from the shore, leaving property, structures, and infrastructure behind, is absurd, countered Plum Island residents, not to mention simply not feasible, said Robert Connors, owner of R. D. Connors Corp., a construction management/consulting company in Woburn, who has lived on Plum Island since 1979.
Sargent “simply overlooks the absolute right of private property,” Connors said from his seat on a beachside deck on a recent Saturday afternoon, before a backdrop of glittering waves, a white beach with a few straggling bathers and sea gulls, and a tiny white triangle of sailboats on the horizon.
Not to mention the fiscal implications, said Martin Saradjian, who has lived on Plum Island for nearly 45 years. In Newbury, island property owners provide more than 40 percent of the town’s property tax revenues, he said, so if they were to move away, it would create a “state of crisis” for the town.
Connors agreed, noting that nine properties with more than $7 million in assessed value — as well as federal flood insurance liabilities of $3.2 million — are currently at risk, while the sewer and water systems on Annapolis Way also are threatened.
The beach scraping permit, which was issued to Connors, allows the owners of 29, 31, 35, and 37 and 39 (Connors’s home) Annapolis Way to move sand via heavy equipment from one area of the beach to shore up the sand barrier in front of their imperiled homes. Residents also were expected to truck in up to 10 trailer loads of sand, with the total estimated cost of the project — roughly $9,000 — to be paid by the homeowners.
There are 78 seaside communities in the state along 1,519 miles of coastline, Connors said, with 36,000 homes located within 500 feet of shoreline. The public and private investment along the Massachusetts coastline approaches $1 trillion.
“It is impossible to reverse some 300 years of development,” he said.
Fellow resident Harry Trout of Fordham Way said that some people look at barrier island principles “out of a textbook,” without considering the fiscal and personal effects.
Many Plum Island residents say the major issues leading to erosion on the island are the interruption of the natural movement of sand by two jetties on each side of the mouth of the Merrimack River, and by several stone groins, which are rock formations constructed perpendicular to the shore.
Although well-intentioned, both the jetties and the groins have “interrupted the natural coastal process, accelerating an unnatural rate of erosion requiring extraordinary measures unlike other coastal community beaches,” said Connors. Continued...