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Tide is high, but they’re holding on

In Plymouth, residents lead a life on the edge

Oceanfront homes in Plymouth with panoramic views of the Atlantic have been bought and sold at bargain prices in recent years. Erosion has been whittling properties for years.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Oceanfront homes in Plymouth with panoramic views of the Atlantic have been bought and sold at bargain prices in recent years. Erosion has been whittling properties for years.

PLYMOUTH — On one side of Nameloc Road, people’s backyards are slowly disappearing.

From the pothole-riddled street, you can hear the ocean roaring below, and see half a dozen homes sitting close to the edge of a steep cliff. Look down the sandy bluffs, and there’s a 150-foot drop to the beach. It’s a long way down.

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These oceanfront homes with panoramic views of the Atlantic have been bought and sold at bargain prices in recent years, and for good reason. The effects of erosion have been whittling away these properties for years.

The residents are battling Mother Nature to save what they have. And some believe they are winning — or at least holding their ground.

“I think I’m nose-to-nose with her, every single storm,” said Kevin Donovan, 57, who lives at 20 Nameloc Road and, by his calculation, has used 2 million pounds of stone to reinforce the bottom of the bluff below his ranch-style home that he bought for $125,000 in 2006.

George Rizer for The Boston Globe

Jessica and Tony Bosari spent $20,000 to move their house on Nameloc Road 30 feet farther back from the shore.

Some of his neighbors have not been so lucky. Or perhaps they just don’t share his determination.

One dilapidated brown cottage sits precariously close to the cliff’s edge. Posted signs warn: “DANGER CONSTRUCTION AREA KEEP OUT.” Next door, the lot at 42 Nameloc Road is vacant. A sign there pokes out of the ground: “PRIVATE PROPERTY KEEP OUT.”

The house that once occupied number 42 had to be demolished earlier this year following the last big storm, said Lee Hartmann, Plymouth’s director of planning and development.

“This one was getting pretty close to the edge,” he said.

Hartmann said the town allowed the owner to build a replacement home on a lot across the street, farther away from the edge of the cliff. But who knows how long it might be before it’s in danger, too.

“This is the area of town with highest erosion rates,” said Hartmann.

The town works closely with these property owners, he said. Nameloc Road isn’t the only address affected by erosion in Plymouth, with its 37 miles of shoreline and a population of 56,468. Dozens of other properties, including homes in the nearby White Cliffs, Monisa Kay Drive, and Oak Bluff Circle neighborhoods, also face erosion problems, according to Hartmann.

In recent years, “three to four homes” have been moved from Nameloc Road, and two have been demolished, he said. Special permits have been granted to allow residents to move their homes to safer footings.

The loss of land in the Nameloc Road area has averaged up to a foot a year, according to Hartmann. Some years have been worse than others.

“This year,” said Hartmann, “was a particularly bad year for coastal erosion.”

Which means residents must work even harder. They maintain their own sea walls to keep their backyards from crumbling away. They also plant vegetation on the slopes, because plants and their root systems can help stabilize and strengthen the bluff. No public money is used in these efforts because it’s all private property.

“Everybody here is DIY,” said Jessica Bosari, who has lived on Nameloc Road since 2001. “We’re all doing it ourselves.”

Bosari rents the house at 16 Nameloc Road, which has sweeping views of the ocean, all the way to Provincetown. Her husband, Tony Bosari, works in construction and spent $20,000 to move their home back 30 feet from the edge. It would have cost $50,000 to $75,000 if he had hired a contractor to do it, he said. He said they are trying to buy the house, and plan to live there for many years.

He also installed a sea-wall-like structure at the foot of the bluff underneath their home, an early prototype of the “Earth Rib Module” system invented by Oskar H. Klenert of Mashpee. Believed to be the first of its kind in Massachusetts, it consists of interconnected concrete modules that fit together like Lego blocks. Unlike standard sea walls, the tier-like structure is designed to act as a natural beach. Tony Bosari installed it himself, using two rented excavators, a special cart, winch, and the help of friends and neighbors.

To the Bosaris, living on the edge is an adventure that is well worth it. Jessica Bosari writes about it on her blog, Blog from the Edge.

“It’s a really good place to live,” she said. “Everybody’s close in the neighborhood. It’s like a family.”

Bruce K. Carlisle, director of the state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management, said managing erosion is a “very difficult issue.” The beaches, dunes, banks, and bluffs along the coastline are constantly changing, and the erosion that occurs there serves a purpose: The sediment that gets washed away from the coast helps replenish sand on the beach.

“We like to remind everyone that the coast is a very dynamic place,” said Carlisle. “Our shorelines are constantly moving. They move in response to storms, prevailing wind, and waves. They change over the course of the year.”

Massachusetts tends to get more erosion in the winter and early spring; then, in the summer, the beaches build themselves up again, says Carlisle.

That’s why man-made structures to combat erosion can have the opposite effect and make the problem worse. A wall designed to stop water from reaching the shore deflects wave energy downward and toward its sides, which increases the speed and severity of erosion all around the wall, he said.

A revetment is another structural fix that consists of layers of stone placed on a slope to help protect the soil underneath. But that, too, can backfire if it interferes with the natural cycle. That is why state law limits the use of sea walls and revetments, and only as a last-resort option.

You can’t just install a sea wall anywhere. Before they began trying to stem the erosion on their home turf, Donovan and the Bosaris had to first get permission from the Plymouth Conservation Commission.

“There is a rebounding effect,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Clarke said sea walls and revetments are “short-term” solutions to protecting property. In his opinion, the only long-term solution is to embark on a “slow and gradual retreat from the shoreline” by moving development away from the coast — much like what some people are pondering in Scituate, to the north.

Donovan has watched the ever-changing nature of the coastline firsthand from the windows of his home at 20 Nameloc Road, where he’s lived since 2007.

Looking out to the vast ocean, Donovan has seen sandbars come and go, and witnessed powerful nor’easters and gigantic waves batter his sea wall. The coast is “so dynamic, you never know what it’s going to do,” he said. “The storms have been amazing.”

Donovan has adapted to living on the edge, building a special cantilevered porch that overlooks the edge of the cliff and a gabion basket revetment at the foot of his bluff. The revetment looks like some kind of trap: baskets filled with stone, stacked like a staircase, so the waves climb up the wall. Donovan installed a long yellow chute — made of interconnecting buckets, like the debris chutes used on construction sites — to zip stones down to the beach below and maintain the wall.

“If I didn’t have that wall, I would have no home,” said Donovan, who owns a motorcycle parts store in Westport. “I’m holding my own.”

Donovan has become an expert at navigating the cliff in front of his home. (His advice: If you ever fall down a cliff, lean back so you don’t tumble forward. “I’ve never fallen all the way to the bottom,” said Donovan. He descends the steep bluff in a controlled way, like sliding into second base.)

Maintaining the wall is difficult work, and has required a measure of almost zealous devotion on his part. “It’s so tedious to do,” he said. “It’s almost like a religion.”

But to him, it’s well worth it. Other homes that were 15 feet away from the edge are long gone. His house sits 6 feet from the edge, and has lost only a few inches of ground since he moved in. He believes his sea wall will last 30 years.

“It’s been amazing, the way it performs,” said Donovan. “It’s so effective.”

There are some properties that don’t have sea walls on Nameloc Road, and Donovan is concerned about their future.

“There are four or five places on the bluff here,” he said, “they’re going to be in big trouble.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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