NEWBURY — In 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that it made a mistake.
The agency oversees the massive Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which covers most of Plum Island and much of the salt marsh behind it, and it was looking to house short-term workers and summer interns when it hopped on what looked like a win-win.
Just up the road from refuge headquarters, a nine-acre property was available along Plum Island Turnpike, the causeway across the marsh that connects Newburyport to the island. The service paid $375,000 for the land, spread across three parcels, including an additional acre that held the only house on the south side of the causeway, what locals called the Pink House.
All alone and framed against the backdrop of the pristine refuge, the weathered house, which was built in 1925 and painted a soft pink for as long as anyone can remember, became a favorite of artists and photographers, as well as a landmark dripping in local lore. Legend has it the house was built out of spite by a soon-to-be ex-husband, who built his wife a replica of their house — per the divorce settlement — but put it in a salt marsh with seawater running through the pipes.
Soon after purchasing the house, the Fish and Wildlife Service found it needed more work than the agency wanted to put into it, with asbestos and other contaminants. In 2015, the service announced it was just going to knock it down, open the land up with a viewing platform, and build a bunkhouse back at their headquarters.
A loud cry went out, and soon a group called Support the Pink House formed to begin an eight-year battle to block the service’s plans. By law, the Fish and Wildlife Service cannot sell its land, although it can trade property for land of equal or greater value.
So the group launched a search to find a suitable property that the Fish and Wildlife Service could swap for the Pink House.
But it has to be land the service wants, and that has proved to be a hard sell.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” said Matt Hillman, the refuge manager, who inherited the Pink House controversy from his predecessor when he took over three years ago. “Our mission is not to preserve old houses. It’s to protect species. And we’ve worked on this for eight years. Eight years.”
During that time, all sorts of people have tried to come up with a swap that will work. Some local options showed promise and fell through at the last minute. The service went to other states in search of land that would thread the needle, which included that the property must essentially match the current $425,000 valuation for the house and the acre of land. In Pennsylvania, a promising prospect had hopes up, but that fell through as well.
Meanwhile Support the Pink House found a redevelopment partner, a local who committed to restoring the Pink House to its original glory, and it created a complicated plan where the would-be homeowner would put $425,000 in escrow to buy the Pink House from whoever swapped a desired property.
“The problem is the more we looked into it, the more we realized this is not a good match for an exchange,” Hillman said. To, say, find $425,000 worth of nearby salt marsh, which the refuge would love, you’d need a property that is more than 300 acres. Few properties have anything close to that, and no owner who did wanted to hand it off to the feds.
“I’ve pursued leads in Maine, two in New Hampshire, many in the Parker River area, one in Western Massachusetts, and they all failed for different reasons,” Hillman said. “This property has a high appraisal for the sort of marshland we’re looking for, and finding a match has been a challenge.”
Eight years later, while the house has done nothing but rot, the Parker River Wildlife Refuge — which welcomes 300,000 visitors a year, has again announced a plan to tear down the Pink House. The ultimatum, which was made during a Zoom meeting on Halloween, started a 30-day comment period, and if no workable swap emerges in that time, the Pink House will come down.
What Fish and Wildlife wants in return is now clearly defined: salt marsh or marshland with upland or water access, near an existing refuge or with the potential to become one. Preferably in the East, and preferably with no historic homes or any structures on them. And as always, the closer to $425,000 the better.
Sandy Tilton, one of the founders of Support the Pink House, said the surprise ultimatum from the refuge hit like a betrayal.
“All these years we’ve been acting as partners with Fish and Wildlife, and we thought we were attending a meeting for new options to move forward,” Tilton said.
She vowed the fight was not over, but now was the time to get as much publicity as possible “to see if we can get some real offers from people who have the ability to save this house” before the Nov. 30 deadline.
“We never had any desire to make them the bad guy, and we still don’t,” said Rochelle Joseph, president of Support the Pink House. “But we have worked on solution after solution and come heartbreakingly close, each time because it’s fallen through at the 11th hour on the Fish and Wildlife side.”
Joseph argues that Fish and Wildlife has a chance to save a regional icon, keep eight of the nine acres of land they bought, and gain more than 100 additional acres to preserve species. “And all they need to do is trade an acre on a busy road across the street from condos and Bob Lobster,” she said.
Hillman, the man who has been receiving the comments during the 30-day period, said there is plenty of love for the house but also more than a few people who say that retreating from that acre of land would not be the worst thing in the world. The core of its legend is that the ex-husband knew what he was doing. It’s simply not a good spot for a home. The basement already floods each high tide, and that’s not predicted to start trending the other way.
On Monday, at PITA Hall on the island, Senator Bruce Tarr will host a meeting to solicit final ideas.
Emotions are high in Newburyport, where the Pink House is a common motif on tchotchkes sold in the downtown, a historic symbol of the tourist-friendly city that may soon be lost to history.
“This is our Citgo sign,” Joseph said. “To lose this symbol of the region would be devastating to the hundreds of thousands of people who come to see the Pink House as part of the Plum Island experience.”