Newbury has a golden opportunity to get national attention for establishing a new way of thinking about coastal development. We all know the old way of thinking, a few years after a house succumbs to erosion, replace it with an even bigger McMansion on stilts.
The problem is, that during those few intervening years, the public has grown fond of being able to see the ocean and people living in the second tier houses have grown fond of having higher land values because of their newfound ocean views.
Instead of continuing to rebuild this wall of ever more imposing homes, Newbury could start to think small. Rather than encouraging homeowners to use pilings and seawalls to protect more and larger structures, they could start encouraging homeowners to replace houses lost to erosion with smaller houses that would have the same value and enhance the public’s and their neighbors views.
How would it work? Newbury could adopt zoning regulations that would require that after a frontline house is lost to erosion the town conservation commission would determine if the lot is still viable, and if it is, to allow the homeowner to build what is called a small house toward the back of his lot. Such houses could be built from existing models from between $20,000 to $100,000.
Homeowners interested in renting their properties might be allowed to build two small houses so they could continue to obtain the same rent as before. The houses would have to meet present flood insurance standards, which would mean they might have to be built on pilings. But the houses would also be easily moveable so owners could choose to store them on the mainland during the winter erosion season. But even if the owners failed to remove the houses they would not lose their entire nest eggs if their homes were lost.
The second tier homes could continue to be as large as the owner wanted them to be, so they could look out over the frontline houses. But the owners would know that when their houses became frontline homes in about 20 years, they would also have to replace them with smaller homes.
The town would be able to assess the second tier houses at a higher rate, because of their newfound ocean views. Each low frontline lot would raise the value of several second tier homes because of the angle of their views of the ocean. Eventually, the shore would only have small traditional looking houses in the dunes with larger homes behind. And it would retain the same look as erosion continued to march forward as it has for the past 4,000 years.
Such small houses would have several advantages. They could provide all the amenities that a beach house needs. Most of the owners of the new houses on Plum Island are from out of town and only plan to only use their houses during the summer.
Real estate agents and builders would continue to be able to make a living selling, renting and building such homes. Newbury would benefit from having houses returned to their tax rolls and homeowners would benefit from having oceanfront homes.
Several of the homeowners who lost their homes in 2013, are now living on their property in renovated outbuildings. It is noteworthy that one of them told a local newspaperman that all he ever really wanted was to live in a small shack on the beach anyway. It is common theme among most beach lovers.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach is available in local bookstores and through Amazon.com.