Plum Island at risk
Storms and sea level rise pose difficult choices for North Shore community
Photographs by Mark Morelli except headline photograph by Gabrielle Gurley
PLUM ISLAND IS one of the most spectacular places to live in Massachusetts. With high dunes and rolling beaches on the lip of the Atlantic Ocean, people move to this barrier island north of Cape Ann for a deep blue slice of paradise.
But paradise can quickly turn to hell when the ocean’s full fury is unleashed, something that scientists say is likely to happen with increasing frequency. In the most recent major hit to the island, a 2013 nor’easter claimed six homes. But once the big storms blow over, difficult conversations about the future of Plum Island don’t tend to rise to the top of the agenda.
Plum Island in many ways is a case study of climate change paralysis. Local municipal leaders, wary of tangling with beachfront property owners who provide a significant chunk of town property tax revenue, careen from crisis to crisis and the tough conversations about the future move to the back burner. State officials are also conflicted, sometimes asserting their power to address serious issues, but other times hanging back to avoid the fray when their voices might be needed. Meanwhile, competing groups of homeowners and residents push and pull the powers that be in different directions.
All of it is much easier to ignore on a perfect summer beach day.
Plum Island is a barrier island about 11 miles long, dangling off the northeast corner of Massachusetts where the Merrimack River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, created by the federal government in 1941, takes up about two-thirds of the island. Newbury and Newburyport divide the tightly packed northern end of about 1,200 homes, roughly 800 in Newbury and 400 in Newburyport. Parts of the undeveloped southern stretch of the island are located in Ipswich and Rowley.
In a geological sense, Plum Island is stable. It hasn’t moved in thousands of years, according to Christopher Hein, a coastal geologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary. Where some barrier islands, so-named because they protect the mainland from storms, have moved landward several miles over eons—think of the Outer Banks of North Carolina—Plum Island has stayed put. It has also not been completely washed over by storms in a very long time.
Although the land mass has not moved in thousands of years, the visible landmarks like beaches and dunes have. The summer shores that people enjoy lying on are in a continuous process of shifting, disappearing, and reforming as wind, waves, and storms chisel and sculpt them. The tall sand dunes are shifting toward the mainland as sand gets redeposited on the back of the island among the small trees, shrubs, and other plant life that help stabilize the island. The fast-flowing Merrimack River, the second-largest river in New England, influences where the sand moves. Man-made structures such as the two jetties at the mouth of the Merrimack, as well as seawalls and groins (smaller seawalls) elsewhere, also influence the island processes. Scientists do not yet fully understand how all these factors interact. No model exists of how sand distributes itself around and on the barrier island. What is known is that the erosion on Plum Island, which seems to come and go every 25 to 40 years, is now slowly shifting southward, Hein says.
Both summer and winter storms influence the island’s topography. Hurricanes tend to be fast-moving and short-lived, with Plum Island protected to some degree by Cape Ann to the south. Nor’easters are a different story. They can hit Plum Island head on from the northeast-facing open ocean and can linger and spin longer. Combine the deep erosion of the kind seen on Plum Island today with a long-lasting nor’easter and you get the dramatic spectacle of homes falling into the ocean as they did in March 2013.
Climate change has thrown in a new twist. Stronger, more frequent storms and rising sea levels heighten Plum Island’s precariousness. Homes further back from the ocean-facing dune have some protection. But houses perched on the dune that meets the shore are in a risky place. Peter Shelley, the interim president of the Conservation Law Foundation, says the future of the island is bleak. “We have this oceanic freight train bearing down on us over the next 50 or 60 years that humans have never seen before if predictions are right,” he says.
Nature makes life difficult on Plum Island, but humans have complicated the picture even more. The major players on the island—lawmakers, state agencies, municipal officials and various factions of residents—weave in and out of controversy so regularly that trying to chart any type of forward motion has been difficult.
Money is often a prime motivator. Like most Massachusetts cities and towns, Newburyport and Newbury are heavily dependent on property taxes. And Plum Island residents know they are sitting on a valuable part of that equation. That subtext underlines many aspects of the debate over how to manage the island and plan for its future.
Plum Island generates about $7 million in property tax revenue annually. Newbury takes in about $4 million, accounting for nearly a third of the town’s total real estate taxes. Much larger Newburyport takes in about $3 million from Plum Island properties, representing about 6 percent of the city’s $48 million annual tax levy.
Ron Barrett, the president of a local civic group, Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates, who owns property in Newburyport and Newbury, calls Plum Island “an industrial park” as a way of describing the property tax windfall it generates for the communities. From time to time over the years, islanders have raised the idea of forming an independent town, but it quickly gets snuffed out, Barrett says, because the Plum Island tax base is just too valuable to the two communities. “The mayors and the selectmen go, ‘Oh no, we can’t lose that,’” he says.Multi-million dollar beachfront homes generate tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes. But what the beachfront gives, it can also take away. When storms smash homes into the sea, municipal tax revenues take a hit. “You’re saying a house, depending on size, averages about $5,000 [in property taxes] a year,” says Robert Cronin, a Newburyport city councilor. “You lose six houses, that’s $30,000. That’s half a teacher, half a fireman.”
According to Federal Emergency Management Agency data, there are 18 residential or commercial buildings in Newburyport and 17 in Newbury that have accumulated a total of 89 repetitive loss claims roughly over a 10-year period. “Plum Island has been losing houses for 60 or 70 years,” says David McFarlane, a retired engineer and former Newburyport city councilor. What’s changed, he says, is the building boom in recent years that brought lots of high-end homes. Years ago, it was beach shacks being lost to storms; today it is luxury manses.
“Coastal property, particularly in a small town like Newbury, is a significant part of the [tax] base,” says Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who represents Newbury. “If [a home’s] value gets diminished, then what strategy does the town have to replace that value? Do you issue more building permits to let building occur in other parts of the town? Maybe allow more commercial development? The point is, the revenue to run the town has to come from somewhere.”
The state has an important role to play in the ongoing debate over Plum Island’s future, but it has seemed ambivalent about getting pulled too deeply into the fray. The Department of Environmental Protection has tussled with residents, particularly in Newbury, standing behind regulations to prohibit homeowners from employing temporary beach engineering techniques that the agency says make matters worse. Those tensions have strained the relationship between the agency and communities, making department officials leery of plunging into unforeseen problems.
DEP was nonetheless the force behind one of the biggest changes to come to the island in decades. As summer-only shacks on Plum Island gave way to large homes, the septic systems that the island relied on came into conflict with state sanitary regulations. Because of small lot sizes, one person’s septic system might be near another person’s well, leading to contamination. Concerned about the public health risks to water sources, the Department of Environmental Protection ordered Newburyport to install a water and sewer system to serve both communities. Plum Island homeowners were assessed as much as $22,000 each to pay for the $22.9 million water and sewer system that was installed in 2006.
The brutal winter of 2015, however, proved to be too much for the system and various components of it froze, leaving some Newburyport homes without running water—and an ability to dispose waste into the system—for several weeks. More than 600 homes were affected. The city had to pay for 70 hotel rooms to house residents. Plum Island Hall, the headquarters of Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates, wasn’t hit by the outage and stayed open 24/7 so people could use restrooms and get updates.
But the system had already malfunctioned several times since its installation, and Newburyport and Newbury don’t have the funds to repair the problems without state assistance. Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday says that between this winter’s repairs and past sewer issues and water main breaks, the system has already cost the city nearly $1 million in fixes. City officials are working with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office and the Department of Environmental Protection to reach a settlement with CDM Smith, the Boston-based firm that installed the system. The state also put $30,000 into a grant for repairs and $50,000 into a study to figure out why the system does not work properly. Officials have to figure out a way to “protect the sewer and water infrastructure investment,” says Doug Packer, Newbury’s conservation agent.
McFarlane, the former Newburyport city councilor and retired engineer, was a member of a citizens group, supported by the Conservation Law Foundation and Mass Audubon, that tried to block the installation of the sewer system. He continues to argue that an eroding barrier island with high water tables is not suited to conventional water and sewer infrastructure. He says development pressure was behind the ill-considered move. “You could not build a lot more houses out here if you didn’t have water and sewer,” says McFarlane.
What the sewer repair costs all mean is that expensive housing development that held the promise of boosting municipal tax revenue payments has led to strain on the same budgets it was supposed to help. And while the state set things in motion by ordering the switch to a costly sewer system, it has had little to say about the problems that have ensued. The DEP declined to comment on the record on the sewer failure, or other Plum Island matters.
The ongoing problems with Newburyport’s multi-million investment underneath the sands of Plum Island weigh heavily on Cronin, who sits on the city council’s budget and finance committee. “What’s the cost of the fix?” Cronin says. “What if there’s a major storm and the storm breaches the systems? The entire Plum island issue is the gorilla in the room when we are sitting there talking about budgets and infrastructure.”
The pros and cons of alternative visions for Plum Island boil down to three options, all of them controversial. Restoring the entire island to its natural state like the neighboring wildlife refuge is an option favored by some environmentalists. Not surprisingly, it also prompts the most passionate local opposition and is a nonstarter.
A middle-ground position is held by those who favor an idea termed a “managed retreat.” That approach would focus on protecting the inhabited parts of the island that can be saved, converting the others into parks or other recreational spaces, and beefing up services that produce revenue, such as visitor parking. “If we don’t act proactively to do these things, nature is going to do it for us in a very unpleasant manner,” says Ipswich resident William Sargent, a science writer and son of former governor Frank Sargent, who frequently writes about Plum Island environmental issues in the Daily News of Newburyport and the Boston Globe.
A transition strategy under “managed retreat” would aim to provide compensation to owners of the most vulnerable properties. Some state lawmakers believe the enactment of a voluntary buyback program would persuade owners of the properties at greatest risk or owners who’ve already experienced multiple losses to move on. “It can be unfair for municipalities to disproportionately have to deal with certain residential properties,” says Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, who has proposed a climate change adaptation management plan currently pending in the Legislature.
Some vocal homeowners support a third option. They believe that if local, state, and federal governments won’t use tax dollars to protect lives and property, residents should be able to use any means necessary to protect their homes. Newbury resident Bob Connors has been engaged in a long-running war of words with the Department of Environmental Protection over the measures he’s used and paid for to shore up the dune in front of his beachfront home, including bringing in large boulders and scraping the beach.
Connors is a co-founder of the nonprofit Plum Island Foundation, another citizens group on the island. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a California public interest law group that “challenges government hubris in the enforcement of state environmental regulations,” according to the group’s website, has often backstopped the Plum Island organization in its battles with the state. Connors says the government shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions about personal property based on what-if environmental scenarios. “You can’t collect our taxes and deny us the very basic services that you provide everybody else,” he says.
Concern for homeowner property rights are factors influencing state and local policy decisions about all vulnerable coastal areas. However, elsewhere on the Massachusetts coastline, officials say a focus on community concerns takes precedence. Cape Cod municipalities “understand that these changes to the shoreline and these coastal erosion issues aren’t personal property issues,” says Kristy Senatori, deputy director of the Cape Cod Commission, the region’s planning organization.
Shelley, of the Conservation Law Foundation, is more blunt. “The Cape has got a culture of awareness of the situation that Plum Island doesn’t,” he says. McFarlane, the former Newburyport city councilor, chalks up the impasse to politics. “It’s against the law, but they are allowed to do it anyway—beach scrape, put rocks in front of the houses which makes [erosion] worse,” he says of homeowners who have taken steps on their own to protect their homes. “When people have a lot of money, politicians say, go ahead and do it.”
STARTING TO DIVE IN
Earlier this year, Newburyport surveyed residents to get input as part of its master planning process update. Respondents were asked to weigh in on whether the city should “prioritize and plan” for sea level rise and asked how serious they feel the problem will be over the next 50 years.
One question asks residents to rank what party should be most responsible for actively preparing for sea level rise—local government, state government, federal government, or the affected property owners. All of the above is not an option, but the question gets at one of the main stumbling blocks to long-term planning for Plum Island. Government at all levels has an important role to play, in conjunction with residents, but no one has seemed too eager to take the lead.
Some gaps, however, are slowly beginning to be filled. The Merrimack River Beach Alliance, founded in 2008, has emerged as the most trusted convener that can get residents, local, state, and federal agencies in the same room to constructively discuss the erosion issues in Newbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury, which has many of the same erosion problems as its neighbors. In recent comments on the draft report of the state-sponsored Coastal Erosion Commission, the alliance noted that Massachusetts should avoid coastal policies that require the removal or abandonment of any public or private buildings and infrastructure. Relocation should only be mandated when all other options have been exhausted, the group said.
Co-chaired by Tarr, the state senator, the group has successfully pursued a number of major erosion-fighting projects, including convincing the US Army Corps of Engineers to undertake more than $15 million in repairs to the jetties at the mouth of the Merrimack River. Many locals believe that the crumbling jetties, which had not been repaired since the 1970s, are largely responsible for Plum Island’s severe erosion issues.
The Coastal Erosion Commission, established by the Legislature in 2013 to study and collect data on the impact of erosion on the state’s coastline, may help communities understand the costs and benefits of their beach-related activities and how best to maximize and protect them. There’s limited information available statewide or in places like Newburyport and Newbury. Last year, about 250,000 people visited the Parker River refuge. Newburyport takes in about $75,000 annually from its beach parking lots and the Mass Audubon’s winter Merrimack River Eagle Festival, which marks the return of bald eagles to the area.
Under a $3 million federal Hurricane Sandy grant, the National Wildlife Federation, the Ipswich River Watershed Association, and others are spearheading conversations with Essex, Ipswich, Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, and Salisbury to catalog local assets and study how to protect them from flooding, storm surge, and sea level rise.
Yet the question of what, if any, big steps should be taken on Plum Island, such as the talk of “managed retreat,” continues to hang in the air. State officials publicly won’t touch the subject. Tarr says that discussions between the Department of Environmental Protection, residents, and municipal officials “have not always been positive.” That’s led to agency officials being “at the table sometimes but not all the time,” he says. In addition to the DEP, the Office of Coastal Zone Management declined to comment for the record. The National Wildlife Federation, which coordinates the Hurricane Sandy grant process, citing “strong and diverse feelings” on the subject, closed press access to an initial task force meeting this spring.Behind the allure of a Plum Island house on dune with an ocean view is a harsh reality. Last winter, it was sewage. Two years ago, it was the loss of homes. However sensible it might seem to the risk-averse denizens of inland Massachusetts, a “managed retreat” that involves some people giving up their homes is not a popular talking point on Plum Island. But it is one that nature’s fury and slim financial resources at all levels of government may wind up demanding. “Unpredictability is a very difficult thing for municipal planners,” says Tarr. “We are trying to make them proactive…the difficult thing is that we are going to have to make some difficult decisions,” he says.
Many scientists say that it is inevitable that Plum Island will undergo a catastrophic climate-change fueled event. But inevitable is not a month and date on a calendar. Plum Islanders are fatalistic about a how a potent combination of natural erosion and more frequent, severe storms could upend their way of life. Ron Barrett, the Plum Island citizens’ group leader, stays grounded in the present, enjoying the sunsets and sweeping ocean views. “I love where I live, and this is my home,” he says. “You pay a price for paradise.”