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Residents must surrender Plum Island to the sea, author says

Owners of oceanfront homes on Annapolis Way on Plum Island have permits to allow beach scraping, in which sand is moved into a position to better protect their property.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Owners of oceanfront homes on Annapolis Way on Plum Island have permits to allow beach scraping, in which sand is moved into a position to better protect their property.

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. 

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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.

“Beach Wars” by William Sargent

“Beach Wars” by William Sargent

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.

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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. 

‘It is impossible to reverse some 300 years of development.’

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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.

Grasses and fences help protect dunes on Plum Island, where erosion is a growing threat to homes on the beach. Plum Island is one of 681 barrier beaches in the state.

Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

Grasses and fences help protect dunes on Plum Island, where erosion is a growing threat to homes on the beach. Plum Island is one of 681 barrier beaches in the state.

“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.

William Sargent’s “Beach Wars’’ focuses on the barrier beach of Chatham.

William Sargent’s “Beach Wars’’ focuses on the barrier beach of Chatham.

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.

Meanwhile, the end of regular dredging of the Merrimack, as well as the lack of maintenance of the jetties, have exacerbated the problem, he said.

Sargent agreed that the jetties should be repaired, but at the same time maintained that he does not think it would greatly affect the houses downstream, as the flow of currents is south to north.

Connors, meanwhile, pointed out that state and federal policies and regulation issues prohibit owners from taking action to protect their properties. The regulatory framework is complex and lengthy, while regulations are laborious to overcome, he said, stressing that the state needs to be more proactive and implement a coastal plan.

“When you have an emergency, it’s a matter of hours and days,” he said. “When you’re dealing with the state and feds, it’s months and years.”

Trout agreed, saying that property owners simply want to be able to save their homes — with their own money — by creating sea walls and sacrificial dunes and completing near-shore dredging.

“It’s so basic, we have a home. It’s jeopardized,” he said.

With 681 barrier beaches in the state, according to Connors, Plum Island isn’t unique. Sargent agreed. Ultimately, he said, this is not just a problem confined to one beach. He believes that several barrier beaches should be slowly vacated and returned to their original state.

Barrier beaches up and down the east coast are “slowly migrating” toward the mainland, he said, and are becoming narrower and shorter.

But it is all indicative of a larger problem — notably the change in sea level, which is rising at a rate of 3 inches every 20 years, he said.

And if barrier beaches continue to erode and inevitably disappear?

Instead of absorbing the impact of the storm offshore, “all of a sudden you’ll have the full force of the Atlantic pounding up against the mainland,” Sargent said. With millions invested in infrastructure and buildings, people want to save their homes, “when really what you want to be doing is backing off.”

Residents, though, have no intention of doing so.

Moving ahead, they have filed for a local bylaw change in Newbury to create an emergency coastal mitigation plan, which would allow for quick response measures to protect the shoreline and dunes by waiving state and federal permits and performing beach scraping, adding sand, and creating barriers with items such as reinforced hay bales, gabions (cages, cylinders, or boxes filled with rocks and earth), and boulders. Connors said it is the first step toward seeking a special act of the state Legislature exempting Newbury during a declared emergency.

Because ultimately, it’s a community problem, he said. “We truly believe that if one house is in danger, we’re all in danger.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.
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