Plum Island residents scrable to save oceanside homes

Employees with John Hartnett and Son construction company hastily installed a seawall behind a home on Plum Island on Monday.
Bill Greene/Globe staff
Employees with John Hartnett and Son construction company hastily installed a seawall behind a home on Plum Island on Monday.

NEWBURY — Anxious to protect his home from the relentless ocean, Bob Connors left a meeting Monday focusing on beach erosion and went home and jumped into a forklift to begin dropping 6,000-pound cement blocks on the side of his property in Newbury. here.

“It’s clear that folks should do what they need to [do to] protect their homes,” said state Senator Bruce Tarr, who chaired the two-hour meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance. “They shouldn’t worry right now about fines or sanctions.”

With three homes destroyed by last week’s nor’easter and unprecedented erosion threatening dozens more in Newbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury, residents are frantically looking for ways to prevent their property from being swallowed by the ocean.


About 30 homeowners attended the meeting, along with US Representative John Tierney, an aide to US Senator Elizabeth Warren, and about 30 local officials from all three municipalities.

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At least 40 homes are at risk of damage from the erosion. In addition, 13 homes have lost occupancy and six have sustained structural damage on top of the three that were destroyed in Friday’s storm, officials said.

Some residents at Monday’s meeting complained that local authorities, acting on the direction of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, have prevented them from protecting their property.

“I’m trying to do this all at my own expense, and I get stopped,” said Tom Saab, a resident of Salisbury who owns a real estate company. “It’s totally absurd what DEP is doing to us.”

Saab said he was attempting early Monday to push back sand that had accumulated along the sides of his property when he was told by a town conservation agent to stop immediately. Exasperated, Saab drove to the meeting and spoke out.


“They came out on the beach and stopped me from protecting about 20 to 25 units, just an hour ago,” Saab said.

But Kenneth Kimmell, the commissioner of MassDEP, said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon that the state has accommodated the desires of residents looking to protect their property, allowing them to import sand when necessary, apply sandbags, and even scrape the beach to reposition sand on the dunes.

The state, at a $400,000 cost, deposited 120,000 cubic yards of sand several years ago on a portion of the island, helping residents save their homes, he said.

Hard structures, such as boulders, are not allowed because research has shown they do not work and can actually harm the homes of residents’ neighbors, Kimmell said. He added that more frequent, violent storms and rising sea levels are neutralizing many of the costly efforts by residents and claiming more coastline at an alarming rate.

“It took about 100 years for the coastline to recede 100 feet. ... It has now receded another 100 feet since 1994,” he said.


“Those homes are at risk, and will continue to be at risk because of the sea-level rise and the retreating shoreline that is picking up in pace in ways that none of us can predict or stop. Those are large geologic forces that no one is capable of stopping.

“In the long term, the most effective thing these homeowners can do is put their homes up on piles or move them back off the dune, and to work with us as we did in a portion of Plum Island to find sources of sand that can be used to reinforce the dune at least temporarily,” Kimmell also said.

When told of the concrete blocks that Connors is placing next to his house, Kimmell said he would reserve judgment until he has a look himself.

This is Plum Island’s ground zero.

Connors lives at 39 Annapolis Way, next to a contemporary Malibu beach house scheduled for demolition Tuesday, the latest victim of the erosion.

Connors said he plans to drop about two dozen massive concrete blocks and cover them with several truckloads of sand, a measure he hopes will not only prevent a breach of seawater around his house, but shield the homes of other neighbors he has called friends for decades.

State Senator Tarr said MassDEP could react quicker to emergency situations, but added that the department will likely not punish homeowners who violate regulations in an effort to save their property.

Brian Ballou can be reached at