By Dyke Hendrickson
---- — PLUM ISLAND — Workers were hustling and backhoes were belching yesterday as men and machines labored to build enormous stone piles to shore up the dunes in front of oceanside homes here.
The introduction of heavy equipment on the beach is a departure from past approaches to protect the dunes, and rugged rock embankments and symmetrical stone walls have been created at the high tide mark from about the center groin to the south end of Fordham Way, about a two-thirds of a mile stretch of beach.
The damaged dunes have undergone a stunning transformation since the nor’easter storm 10 days ago that left dozens of homes in peril and caused six to be destroyed. Homeowners have dumped and piled stones all along beach, creating a rugged wall. Some are creating finely shaped walls; others have brought in great piles of rough stones.
There appeared to be disparate views on whether the work has the approval of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Several homeowners said they have received permission from the state DEP or “the governor.” These individuals declined to give their names.
But a staff member of the DEP yesterday said that no permissions have been given.
“They haven’t gotten permission,” said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for DEP. “The homeowners are concerned about their properties and we aren’t going to stop work from going on.
“When the storms are over for the year, we will be coming out to review what has been done. If the structures aren’t in accord with regulations, they might have to take the walls down.”
Coletta said that homeowners would not have to pay a penalty if they have to remove the barriers that are being erected.
Members of the state Department of Environmental Protection in the past have refused explicit permission for homeowners to move sand or build “hard structures” to prevent more erosion of the dunes.
But the possibility of homeowner action was always in the air.
Tracy Blais, Newbury town administrator, could not be reached for comment yesterday, nor could Joe Story, chairman of the Board of Selectmen here.
“The homeowners are paying for this, not the town,” said Doug Packer, Newbury’s conservation agent. He indicated the town is not supervising the construction of the walls and barriers.
One property owner yesterday said she was relieved that the homeowners are finally taking action.
“We are thankful to be able to do this, but it’s too late for those who have lost their homes,” said a homeowner who declined to give her name. “There has been red tape and roadblocks, and we are taking advantage of the moment now.”
In recent weeks, six oceanfront residences on Annapolis Way and Fordham Way have been demolished and carted away after being condemned. That is a cost borne by the owners.
About two dozen structures are still listed as vulnerable.
Now it appears that no expense is being spared by homeowners who are trying to save what they have.
One construction worker yesterday said more than $100,000 has been spent in bringing in loose boulders and sand to fortify the dunes in front of seven houses on the southernmost end of Fordham Way.
The rock is coming from Seabrook, and the sand is being imported from northern Maine, said the worker, who declined to give his name.
At blue, an oceanside hotel on Fordham Way, massive chunks of cut stone were being placed on top of the other as a means for holding back the Atlantic. Individual sections of stone are about 6 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet.
There are currently no guests at the hotel, neighbors said.
At a recent meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, numerous homeowners expressed frustration that state officials were not giving them latitude to scrape the beach and erect hard structures as a means to halt the erosion that threatens their homes.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, co-chairman of the MRBA, was circumspect in his analysis at that meeting.
Tarr then addressed property owners: “You can do what you need to do to save your place, but you’ve got to know that you might have to remove it after the fact.” He was referring to rebuilding a dune or creating a hard-structure barrier in contravention of DEP’s rules.
Homeowners on the south end of Plum Island clearly have taken action to protect their property. They said they are committed to bringing in sand, dune grass or other elements to ensure the beach is attractive and healthy.