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The romance and tranquility of Plum Island has lured homeowners to its long stretch of open shores for decades. But could the natural forces that spawned an entire community now threaten its very existence?

It happened just a few days before Thanksgiving 2008. A storm about 200 miles off the coast of Massachusetts was generating intense, unforgiving waves. After finally reaching land, those waves battered Geri Buzzota’s Plum Island home, forcing her to abandon it as it fell into the ocean. Buzzota watched in horror as her house on Northern Boulevard crashed into the water. Days later, she watched as sand was deposited onto her property. “If they had done that the month before, I’d still be in my house,” states a convinced Buzzota. She says the town of Newbury held erosion-control sandbags in storage all summer but had asked them to be placed on her property from May 2008 on, when she lost her first of two decks.


Then, in late January of 2009, the Army Corps of Engineers released a new report on the beneficial use of dredging in Newburyport Harbor to help reclaim areas along Plum Island. However, the report issued this warning: erosion on the Plum Island shoreline has claimed an average of 13 feet of sand per year since 2000 and if nothing is done to stop it, 26 homes will be lost by 2019.

According to town officials and environmental experts, however, the issue of erosion control on Plum Island extends far beyond dredging and the mere placement of sandbags.

Plum Island, a barrier island 11 miles long shared by Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, and Ipswich, has been subject to extreme erosion for many years. The shifting sands have left deep cuts in the beachfront and property owners have witnessed first-hand as their beaches, fences, lawns, decks, and now a home, have been thrashed by the ocean. The beach is now a sliver of its former self, merely a steep drop down to the water, and these concerns have recently led to the scrutiny of federal structures and an analysis of town procedures.

According to Doug Packer, Newbury conservation agent, nearly 300 feet has been lost at Center Beach over the past two years. Homeowners’ deepest, collective desire is to see acres of

sand dredged from the mouth of the river and applied directly and quickly to the island.

“We’re trying to build a case for onsite nourishment on a regular basis. And that’s our intent-to make this land sustainable over the long term,” says Mark Sarkady, President of the Plum Island Foundation, formed in November 2007 to address the severe erosion threatening several of the island’s homes, as well as its nearly completed multi-million dollar water and sewer project.

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“Hopefully what’s happened with Geri’s home will be a catalyst,” says Sarkady, who reports a loss of 75-100 feet of beachfront over the last two years at his own property about a quarter of a mile away.

“We’ve got an immediate threat that we have to deal with,” says Massachusetts State Senator Bruce Tarr.

However, determining what will lead to sustainability and long-term success are questions that have yet to be answered. And while causes and solutions are fleshed out, property owners are forging ahead, seeking political assistance that may generate millions of dollars in Congressional appropriations to fund proposed projects.

Temporary Fix

The Plum Island taxpayers association and town of Newbury previously received a $250,000 grant

from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to improve public beach access. According to Packer, the town asked the state in October of 2008 to use those funds for a sandbagging effort as a short-term solution for the most intense erosion just south of Buzzota’s property, in order to protect the beach, the water and sewer system, and the turnpike-the only road connecting the island to shore.

The sandbagging project started in November just a few weeks before Buzzota’s home disappeared. According to Packer, the project had to clear several hurdles “based on permitting and funding” before it could begin. The sand deposited at Buzzota’s property after her house fell was not part of this effort, Packer says. That sand was used to fill holes left behind by the home’s oil tank and other items in an effort to stabilize the area.

Buzzota lost her deck for the second time about a month before the house was undermined, says Packer. The building inspector had posted a no entry sign on her door but Buzzota removed the remains of the deck and was able to obtain an engineer’s certificate stating the foundation was sound, and moved back in.

“We had been keeping an eye on the house on a daily basis,” says Mike Reilly, Newbury police chief and emergency management coordinator. Reilly had to make the decision to demolish the house as it was breaking, and he relied on the opinions of the building inspector, fire chief, and structural engineers.

“It was a very difficult thing for the town to do,” says Packer. The sandbagging effort (nearing completion of a fifth layer at press time), appears to be stabilized. Thousands of pounds of sand in giant bags up to 27 feet long are stacked five layers high and clamped down. They are made of a biodegradable material that will require planting vegetation in the spring to ensure a longer-term solution. That has some people looking optimistically to the future.

“The beach has come up quite a bit since the bags were put in place,” says David Vine of Newburyport-based Vine Associates, the consulting engineer on the project.

“I’m not as worried as I was,” says Newburyport Mayor John Moak. “If that center breached, we could’ve had problems,” he added. Newburyport’s chief concern, he says, is the water/sewer

project. “It’s our responsibility to make sure it’s in good order.”

But others are more cautious. “Presently the threat level is mild. It’s relatively low, but it’s present. It is very changeable. As we saw with the Buzzota home, things can change on Plum Island very quickly,” says Tarr.

North and South

At the northern end of the island, water flows out of the Merrimack River at high rates. Frequent southeasterly ground swells, northeasterly wind powered waves, and intense Nor’easter vectors pound, refract, and turn again to the beach. Jetties, sand bars, homes, and other structures affect the complex currents and forces that continuously move acres of sand on and off Plum Island.

Though beach depth generally fluctuates seasonally, today there seems to be an abysmal lack of sand at certain points. Over the past year along Center Beach, a very developed region of the island whose waters host an exposed structure called a groin field, intense erosion has frightened Buzzota’s neighbors.There are several deeply scalloped areas where erosion is most pressing.

Plum Island Point, which hosts a jetty, has grown vastly. According to Mike Morris, property owner and wave enthusiast, this process is actually a cycle and has happened before, but long before homes were built on the dunes.

“Plum Island Point is a temporary feature,” Morris says, explaining that the point has built up and broken off twice in recorded history.

By contrast, Parker River National Wildlife Reserve on the island’s more sparsely populated southern end, due south of the groin field, is faring much better in terms of sand acreage.

No Definitive Answer

Deerin babb-brott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) describes Plum Island’s situation as “somewhat chaotic.” Barrier beaches extend off the coast of the eastern seaboard in many places and the dunes of which they are composed naturally build and erode away. “It’s when you build houses that erosion is bad,” says Babb-Brott.

One of the reasons that extreme erosion is taking place on Plum Island, says Babb-Brott, is that when dunes migrate back toward shore, structures arrest this natural effort. The hot spots of erosion also move around. According to CZM, in 2001 the hottest spot was one-third to one-half mile south of where it is now. “In six to seven years from now, it’s going to be somewhere else,” says Babb-Brott.

Several agencies say that study is essential to learning more about the system and how to best protect the homes and the beach. “There’s a lot of ideas and speculation, but I don’t think anyone’s got a handle on it,” says John Kennelly, engineer in the Army Corps New England District Planning

and Navigation Office.

Forces in Action

Morris says that his research, which relies heavily on oceanography and data from the Army Corps of Engineers, shows that 97 percent of the wave energy moves the sands of Plum Island north. The northward energy naturally pushes a portion of the point off, filling the mouth of the Merrimack River in its continued migration north toward Salisbury Beach Reservation or out to sea with the river current.

From his routine observations of the beach and constant following of wave reports and other data, Morris says the beach will build back up from a spike in southeasterly wave activity. Complicating the natural progression, Morris says, is the groin field. This series of short rock formations, some of which are breached and breaking down, was built in the 1950s as a way to hold sand back. The groins do hold sand back on their south side, but other factors, including an offshore sandbar, refract wave energy in such a way that the northern sides of each groin erode, creating the scalloping effect seen from today’s aerials of the island. “All the houses in trouble are on that side of the groin,” he says.

A second factor is that the southern jetty, one of two built by the Army Corps to ensure the navigability of the Merrimack River, has breached and doesn’t hold sand back. Also, Morris says that due to sea level rise, the jetty is now too short and during high tides, water will wash right over the jetty, greatly minimizing its purpose. Morris calculated 23 acres of sand loss from Center Beach between 1995 and 2007 and measured an increase from 30 to 53 acres at Plum Island Point during the same period.

“Groins and jetties influence sediment transport,” Babb-Brott says. Morris and others think repair of the groins and shortening, repairing, and increasing the height of the south jetty are keys to preventing further erosion.

“We can repair that jettyÂ… but that would do nothing from stopping homes from falling into the water,” says Howard Marlowe, president of Washington, D.C.-based Marlowe & Company. The Plum Island Foundation hired Marlowe to assist with capturing federal funding for dredging, onshore nourishment, and repair projects it believes will resolve the crisis.

Fingering the Feds

“It seems to be a collective negligence of leadership,” says Sarkady. “The Army Corps hasn’t taken care of its structures, for one.”

Some believe that major factors in the erosion are the weakening condition of the south jetty and the fact that dredging in the river mouth has not taken place in almost 10 years.

“Once you build a federal structure, you need to maintain it of any deleterious effects,” says Newbury Selectman Vincent Russo. Others also feel that previous dredge projects, which deposited material near the shore, have created or enlarged an existing sandbar, thereby increasing wave energy and erosion.

Paul Novak, attorney for property owner Wanda Novak (who says she has lost 40 percent of her property and appealed her tax assessment in court and lost), says the Army Corps, “in a sense created an artificial barrier.” Kennelly responded that, “it would be pure speculation on anyone’s part to even know if it was a factor how the sandbar was formed.”

According to Babb-Brott, “it’s highly unlikely,” that dredge material would create a fully-formed sandbar.

The dredge material has historically been deposited near the shore. “Enough to bury all of downtown Newburyport in 30 feet of sand,” says Morris. He says that a total of 1.6 million cubic yards of sand have been dredged between 1961 and 1993. However, CZM says near-shore disposal is a routine and professionally recognized activity that benefits the system.

“You’ve got sand exiting the system and the result is erosionÂ… with near-shore disposal, you are putting the sand back into the system. We take the best we can get, and that’s putting sand back

in the system,” says Babb-Brott.

A Dredging Controversy

Dredging and nourishment is the main focus of a quickly-needed, long-term solution by Plum Island stakeholders. While state agencies, as well as the Army Corps, study the issue, there are some who feel dredging is actually a key part of the problem.

Morris believes that dredging removes deep layers of sand, causing the top of Plum Island Point to fall in. The dredging, he says, is a major factor in the island’s entire erosion problem, which is a vicious cycle. The whole system, from the river mouth in the north to the tip of the island in the south, is a circulation cell, he says.

“It’s the definition of insanity,” he says. “We keep doing things over again. They can’t dredge at the rate they dredged in the ’60s and ’70s,” he says. “How do we know the amount of what we’re dredging is really the right amount or the right thing to do?”

Homeowner Issues

While town officials work on a long-term plan, many residents worry about the short-term. Buzzota’s family is exploring a possible rebuild and is speaking with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for financial recourse. “But if I rebuild, can I afford it?” she wonders.

Wanda Novak, who was denied tax assessment abatement, noted that there is now an eight-foot drop on the beachfront of her house on Northern Boulevard. “The erosion has greatly reduced the value of the property,” she says.

According to Russo, the town of Newbury evaluates property value by sales. “It’s Catch-22 because there are no sales.”

Chuck Kostro, finance director for the town, says abatement decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. While no abatements have been granted, the town is going to look at what other communities have done, such as Chatham, which suffers frequent house loss due to erosion, and Danvers, which lost several homes after a chemical factory exploded in late 2006.

Potential Solutions

Last year, congressman John Tierney was able to secure $675,000 for a future dredging project at the

Merrimack River mouth. According to Tarr, it could take two appropriations cycles to get all the funds needed for dredging and onshore deployment, which together costs about $4 million. Sarkady says jetty repair could cost between $1 million and $5 million depending on the type of fix. In early February, $2.7 million in state bonds was earmarked for Plum Island. The Massachusetts Department

of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) recently announced that if the various parties could reach consensus, then the agency would spearhead and fund a dredging and nourishment project as part of its capital budget for 2010 at a cost of $525,000.

The focus for everyone seems to be on nourishing the dune, but it’s laden with structures and roadways that pre-vent it from doing its job, and therefore exacerbate erosion.Hazard mitigation plans need to be made by the municipalities, and building codes need to be updated to include constructing houses on open pilings that dissipate wave energy. Grants are available to assist homeowners with elevating properties, which also reduce flood insurance.

“The community has to be the one taking the lead to get ahead of the issue,” with proactive planning, technical assistance from CZM and other state agencies, and continued focus, says Babb-Brott.

Teetering on the Edge

Though fears that Plum Island is washing away are alarmist, pockets of erosion in the heavily populated

center continue to threaten homes, (26 of them, as the recent report published by the Army Corps of Engineers warns), the lone roadway connecting the island to shore, and its costly water and sewer system. While there is no conclusive opinion on the appropriate solution-just different opinions and desires for immediate action-a carefully-engineered sandbagging effort spearheaded by the town of Newbury, along with the upcoming dredge and nourishment project, will help to protect homes in danger in the short-term.

The ultimate solution for the island’s sustainability remains an open issue. Many houses are built right in the dune, however, and calculating what Mother Nature will do is much like asking a crystal ball for answers. What the future holds for Plum Island residents is an unknown. What seems certain is that when there’s enough money, persistent islanders will mobilize quickly to protect their assets with dredging, nourishment, and repair projects. -Andrea Fox