Learning the lesson of shoreline development
In city halls across the North Shore, officials are discussing how coastal communities will cope with the ravages of rising sea levels and storm surges. They can take a lesson in what not to do by observing what is happening along the fragile coast of Plum Island, where a new batch of enormous homes is rising, some on land where homes were destroyed by storms just three years ago.
In Newburyport, our sister paper the Daily News has been covering news of erosion and severe storm damage along Plum Island for decades, but these days there’s something different going on. As so many people have observed, the days when the was populated by simple cottages are long gone. Now, much of the new construction is enormous and expensive, much taller, and more resilient to the ravages of nature thanks to their impressive anchors — steel pilings driven deep into the ground.
In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for those cottages to be smashed by storms and destroyed. The rebuilding costs were slight, because it was thought that the sea could easily taketh away.
Today, engineering has allowed for the construction of buildings that are far larger, taller, and more solid than anything in the past. They are built to withstand the maelstrom. Yet the ground underneath them remains the same, an unpredictably shifting landscape that the best engineering in the world can’t tame.
As the private investment into Plum Island grows by leaps and bounds, the public investment in the fight to tame nature will grow as well. It’s hard to say when decisions will be made to give in to nature along vulnerable stretches of beachfront, as has been done along the coast of New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. If the predictions of sea level rise are accurate, the sandy local coast will face crisis points within the next 30 or so years.
In retrospect, we can look back on a decision by the state as the turning point that future generations may come to regret. Maybe we can learn from it. Gloucester residents surely did, fighting — and winning — a hard battle to stop development along the Back Shore.
In Newburyport, the state’s intentions were good, but its application to Plum Island was flawed. In a nutshell, the state forced Plum Island to comply with the Title 5 septic system rules that had been intended for homes on high-and-dry land. Prior to a decade ago, homes on Plum Island had their own wells — many with undrinkable water — and septic systems that didn’t comply with Title 5. The size of the island’s small lots put wells and septic tanks in closer proximity than state law allowed. The solution, the state determined, was to force the island to install public water and sewer lines, and to get rid of all the wells and septic tanks.
All of that was done, a substantial public cost. Both the water and sewer systems have suffered from significant design flaws, but that’s another story.
The net impact has been to encourage a substantial growth in the size of homes on Plum Island. Where once a small cottage stood, now a huge home could be built, tied into water and sewer lines. The state had unintentionally created the right conditions to spark a building boom on a fragile piece of land it had intended to protect.
The building boom continues to this day. Take a ride around Plum Island and you’ll see huge homes rising, and older homes adding rooftop additions to reach ever higher into the sky to gain a view. Much of the island has gradually been developed into homes that are as large, or larger, than those on the less-flood-prone mainland.
At least $25 million has been spent in the past decade on rebuilding the jetties and dumping sand on eroded sections of the island. The need for new measures exists as erosion patterns shift and imperil waterfront neighborhoods.
So much is invested in Plum Island we’d be foolish to not continue the fight to protect it. But the fight will no doubt grow increasingly expensive. At what point will we begin to retreat?
That retreat will be far harder, thanks to decisions made nearly 20 years ago. Fortunately, there is still time for other communities to learn from those mistakes.
Read more in William Sargent’s new book, Plum Island; 4,000
Years on a Barrier Beach is available in local bookstores, also see tab on the top of this page.