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Plum Island residents scramble to save homes

Homeowners on Plum Island embraced on their back porch on Monday amid the wreckage caused by the nor’easter last week. The storm further eroded the island’s fragile dunes.Bill Greene/Globe Staff

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

"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 and Newburyport, which both have portions of Plum Island, 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.

In addition to the homes that were destroyed, 13 have been deemed uninhabitable and six have sustained structural damage due to beach erosion, officials said. At least another 40 homes are at risk of damage.

Some residents at Monday's meeting complained that local authorities, acting at 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 the Department of Environmental Protection, said by phone Monday that the state has accommodated desires of residents looking to protect their property, allowing them to import sand when necessary, use sandbags, and even scrape the beach to reposition sand on the dunes.

Tim Santiago and Kevin Baez move items from Bob Connors’s home (at right) to a neighbor’s garage on Plum Island.Bill Greene/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The state, at a $400,000 cost, deposited 120,000 cubic yards of sand several years ago on a portion of Plum 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 harm neighboring homes, Kimmell said. He said 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 said.


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

Connors's home is at Plum ­Island's ground zero. He 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 around his property and cover them with several truckloads of sand, a measure he hopes will not only prevent seawater from breaking through and surrounding his house, but also shield the homes of neighbors he has called friends for decades.

Tarr said the department could react more quickly to emergency situations, but added that the department will probably not punish homeowners who violate regulations in an effort to save their property.

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com.