NEWBURY — With just inches of sand keeping four Plum Island houses from tumbling onto the beach, homeowners are anxiously awaiting word from the state next week about how far they can go to save their homes.
Homeowners are hoping for approval to begin beach scraping, a controversial dune repair method that removes sand from the ocean floor with bulldozers and uses it to replenish the dunes. Local authorities are expected to sign off on the scraping Tuesday, but it will then be up to state environmental officials to determine how much ocean sand can be removed.
“Moving some sand around might be possible,” Phillip Griffiths, undersecretary for the environment, told the 50 people who gathered for a meeting at a local Massachusetts Audubon center Friday about the erosion emergency. “But we have to make sure our actions don’t create long-term problems.”
Plum Island shores were scraped last summer after similar erosion led to multiple homes being declared unsafe for occupancy. One of the homes, at 27 Annapolis Way, had to be razed.
Studies have found that over time beach scraping exacerbates erosion, by altering the beach profile and creating a more vulnerable beach dune. The practice has been banned in Massachusetts for more than a decade, with the exception of declared emergencies.
But homeowners insist that their situation constitutes an emergency and that scraping is necessary to save their homes.
“This is all that’s keeping me from losing everything,” Thomas Nee, a 30-year Plum Island resident, said as he stood on the 4 feet of dune that remains behind his 37 Annapolis Way home, which is one of the four in imminent danger if a storm hits.
A nor’easter in early June took out 10 feet of the sand dune behind Annapolis Way homes, which once stretched more than 80 feet. Now just a few feet of dune remain behind some houses; others have just inches.
Nee, who has spent more than $3,000 to import sand to repair the dune behind his home, said any further erosion will cause the concrete foundation on which his house sits to crumble. The Newbury Conservation Commission is expected to give the go-ahead for beach scraping on Tuesday, and Nee and other homeowners have contracted bulldozers to begin scraping Wednesday morning.
But Plum Island residents know that Tuesday’s meeting is just the beginning of the jurisdictional maze involved with gaining full clearance.
The Conservation Commission, which holds local jurisdiction, has the power to approve beach scraping, as well as the use of sand bags and hay bales.
State environmental officials then have a 10-day period to appeal the decision. If any of the sand comes from below the low-water line, which homeowners expect would be the case, the US Army Corps of Engineers would also have to clear the scraping.
Some residents want Governor Deval Patrick to waive the environmental regulations that forbid beach scraping, and signs petitioning the governor line the streets of the island. But it remains unclear if he has that jurisdiction, according to several state officials.
State environmental officials say they will await the recommendations of Tuesday’s meeting and then hope to work with local authorities to find a short-term solution.
“We have an imminent danger, and here we are moving at the pace of bureaucracy,” said Bob Connors of 39 Annapolis Way, as he pointed to the eroding dune from the back porch of his white and gray home.
Connors urged state leaders at the Friday meeting to act quickly, arguing that if the state is not going to fund beach scraping, it should at least allow homeowners to spend their own money to scrape the beach and save their homes.
“If we lose a single home, it is unacceptable,” he said.
The state halted locally approved beach scraping on Plum Island last year, angering homeowners who feared their homes were on the brink of collapse.
The Merrimack River Beach Association, which is led by state Senator Bruce Tarr, has called a meeting next week between state officials, the Army Corps, and homeowners to avoid a similar clash this time around.
“We all acknowledge that there is some role for beach scraping,” said Tarr, who led Friday’s meeting. “It’s hard to envision a permanent solution, so what we’re looking for are sustainable solutions to what had been a long-term problem.”
The state has undergone numerous efforts in recent years to correct man-made causes of the beach’s sand dune erosion, installing sand tubes in 2007 to serve as an artificial sea wall and seeking funding to repair the Merrimack River jetties. The jetties are meant to guide river water, which is rich in sediments, deep enough into the ocean that it is picked up by the current and washed back to replenish the beach. Damage to those jetties has left much of the beach without fresh sand to replace the sand that erodes in storms.
About $3.5 million has been secured for jetty repair, which needs another $10 million before it can be completed.
Connors praised Griffiths, Tarr, and US Representative John Tierney, who was also in attendance on Friday, for their long-term proposals to stop sand dune erosion. In the meantime, he said, the state needs to step out of the way of the bulldozers. “The state needs to either protect my home or get out of the way and let me protect it myself,” he said.