For the past 40 years, few people have paid attention to a 30-foot-high pile of sand that sits in the middle of Rumney Marsh Reservation and stretches from Saugus into Revere.
But the pile is now the subject of a contentious debate between the Department of Conservation and Recreation and some residents of Saugus. The DCR wants to move some of the sand to Winthrop Beach later this year, while the abutters want the sand to stay put.
“They’re going to disturb habitat and cut down hundreds of trees,” said Peter Manoogian, a former Saugus selectman who lives near the sandpile and opposes its removal.
Joe Orfant, the director of DCR’s Bureau of Planning and Resource Protection, said the sand removal is necessary to complete the restoration of Winthrop Beach. The state has tried to clean up the beach for the past 15 years, and in the fall it hopes to begin work on the project, which is expected to cost up to $20 million. The first two phases, which called for repairing existing beach areas and dredging 90,000 cubic yards of sand and spreading it over a section of the beach, are nearly complete.
Orfant said the winter storms did little damage to the overall beach project. He said the additional sand that had been added to the beach prevented much of the flooding that typically occurs during heavy storms.
“It eliminated 90 percent of the flooding,” said Orfant.
The planned sand removal from Saugus is the costliest and most controversial part of the renovation. The DCR had originally proposed dredging sand from a site 8 miles off the coast of Boston. But citing potential damage to cod stocks, that proposal was rejected by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2008, and during an appeal in 2011.
The DCR then turned to the sand in Rumney Marsh. Under the plan, about 350,000 cubic yards would be removed from the marsh and trucked to Winthrop, where it would be spread over the beach. Orfant said the process, which would cost about $12 million, would begin in the fall and take 10 months to complete.
“It’s quite valuable sand,” said Orfant, who added that the pile is needed to protect Winthrop’s shore and seawall from storms and flooding. With the added sand, the beach would be raised as much as 18 feet in some sections.
Until the late 1960s, Rumney Marsh — a 600-acre state-owned wetlands at the edge of the Saugus River — sat undisturbed. That’s when the trucks of sand started to arrive from New Hampshire as part of a plan to extend Interstate 95 from Revere through Saugus and Lynn to Lynnfield. For years, workers crafted the sand into a 30-foot-high berm that formed a highway embankment and ran from Route 1 in Revere through the marsh before ending at the Saugus River.
In 1972, then-governor Francis W. Sargent halted the project, saying mass transit — instead of adding more highways — was the way the state should go. Since then, the thin layer of asphalt over the 60-foot-wide sand surface has cracked and trees, shrubs, and grass have taken root. A portion of the sand berm was removed in the early 1990s to spread along Revere Beach, but the remaining section is now a recreation area where walkers and cyclists can see everything from hawks to deer and coyotes.
“We shouldn’t have to drive to New Hampshire or Maine to see wildlife,” said Dawn Gaffney, who lives next to the sand embankment and frequently takes her kayak into the marsh waters, which lead to Lynn or Revere. Gaffney has also started a “Save Rumney Marsh” Facebook page.
Orfant said the state still needs a permit for the project from the Saugus Conservation Commission, which will discuss the sand-taking proposal at its meeting Wednesday.
Orfant said the pile at the marsh would still remain about 30 feet high when the sand is removed, but its width would be halved. He said hundreds of new trees would be planted to displace trees taken by the project, and he added that no endangered or protected wildlife would be harmed.
“We’ll be doing extensive replanting there and nature will continue to repopulate it,” he said.
Orfant said the state plans to spend up to $2 million to reshape the sandpile and to increase salt water flow into the marsh. Part of the project will include dredging. “It will improve the tidal flow,” he said.
Michael Serino, chairman of the Saugus Board of Selectmen, lives in the shadow of the sand berm and said it serves as a sound and visual barrier from nearby Route 107.
Serino opposes the project but doesn’t believe the town can do much to stop it. He likes to walk along the berm — which has views of Revere Beach and the Boston skyline — and hopes the state will follow through with its commitment to restore the marsh. “That project would help stop some of the flooding here,” he said.