By Dave Rogers
---- — PLUM ISLAND — In what could be a last-ditch attempt to save the historic Bennett Hill home before its falls into the Atlantic Ocean, a charity event has been organized to try to protect the fast-eroding dune that home sits on.
Plum Island Beachcoma owner Greg Pugh, who put together the effort, hopes to raise enough funds to purchase and install a rock barrier similar to what other homeowners nearby have built, and claim it has saved their properties.
Bennett Hill, the Victorian-era house built in 1881 and known as a landmark to island residents and visitors, is located just off Plum Island Center and is often the first house seen by those who enter the beach from Plum Island Center. The yellow house with brown trim sits prominently atop one of the highest sand dune peaks on the island.
The dune has taken a steady pounding over the past few years, and last week’s storm tore away so much sand the house now sits on the very edge of the tall dune.
Pugh said the fundraiser is expected to take place Saturday, Jan. 18, at the Plum Island Boulevard restaurant during business hours, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Pugh said the fundraiser will feature raffles from items donated by residents and local and area businesses. Among the items already donated is a pair of tickets to Saturday’s New England Patriots playoff game at Gillette Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts. The opening bid for the prime location tickets is $600. During the 12-hour fundraiser, 20 percent of all sales will be donated to an account recently established at the Newburyport Five Cents Bank “Save Bennett Hill & Neighbors.” Separate donations can be made to the funds by visiting any of the bank’s locations.
The house has been owned by the Bennett family since 1910 when George Bennett purchased the building before buying the land in 1921. Since then three generations of Bennetts have spent many of their summers inside the house, all along keeping the house as close to its original state as possible.
The current caretaker, John Bennett of Tewksbury, said he is hopeful that the fundraiser and other endeavors will enable him to do what many of his neighbors did last March when they paid tens of thousands of dollars to install a series of large rocks in front of their beachfront homes. The move was done without the approval of the Department of Environmental Protection, which has been against the installation of hard surface barriers, but the state did not interfere.
“I just don’t want to see it go over the hill,” Bennett said, adding the house is filled with so many memories that there is more of an emotional attachment than a financial attachment.
Board of Selectmen chairman Joe Story said the rock barriers helped prevent further property damage after last week’s storm, which brought enormous waves pounding against the beach. Prior to the storm, sand covered the rock barriers, but the covering layer was swept away by the storm.
A walk along the beach demonstrates that the rock barriers protected the dune on which many homes sit. However, in the few spots where homeowners did not erect a rock wall, there has been significant erosion — as much as 20 feet of dune has been scoured away in these areas.
Bennett said while other homeowners were placing rock barriers in front of their properties, he demurred, as he had recently spent $16,000 on massive sandbags only to see them fall apart and disappear into the ocean.
But while Bennett has seen erosion chip away at the massive sand dune that has kept his property perched high above the beach disappear over the years, last week’s storm has placed the home precariously close to the tipping point. Now he believes installing a rock barrier is the only thing that will prevent him from losing his family’s summer home when the next massive storm strikes.
Bennett said nearby neighbors have spent as much as $35,000 on the rock barriers and estimated it will cost him close to that amount to do the same.
Asked what he though of Pugh’s attempt to help him raise they money, Bennett was effusive with praise.
“I can’t say enough about him. I’m grateful that my neighbors are trying to do this for me and the town,” Bennett said.
For Pugh, who has organized many Plum Island-centered fundraisers since opening his popular eatery and bar, he simply called it the right thing to do. As a Plum Island resident, Pugh said it only made sense for him to do what he could.
“This is where I live and this is something that affects all of us,” Pugh said.
Word of the fundraiser has begun to spread through Facebook. Both the Beachcoma’s page and the recently created Save Bennett Hill page have been flooded with comments and offers of donations and help. Pugh is still networking with other Plum Island residents hoping to spread the word and enlist their support.
Both Pugh and Bennett said the need to protect Bennett Hill isn’t just about saving one family’s property, it’s about protecting the entire island’s infrastructure.
“If the beach goes, we all go,” Pugh said.
All too often, Bennett said, the state and others have been merely reacting to Mother Nature’s fury as opposed to thinking ahead and at least trying to stop problems before they creep up. Such a proactive stance may have prevented the loss of so many homes last season.
“It’s unfortunate we’re at this point with the island,” Bennett said.