PLUM ISLAND — Three years ago Newbury Town Meeting voters took one of the final legal actions needed to set in motion a $5.1 million plan to rebuild an eroding stretch of Plum Island beach. Now, a dispute over that action is heading to court.
A case is wending its way through Newburyport Superior Court to decide whether Christine Florio and her brother Paul Novak are entitled to $440,000 for a piece of their land that Town Meeting used eminent domain powers to place easements on.
The property is located at 58 and 60 Northern Blvd., near a stretch of beach that the Army Corps of Engineers had identified as imperiled by erosion. In 2010, sand was dredged from the mouth of the Merrimack River and pumped onto Plum Island beach in order to stem the creeping erosion.
Before any sand was placed on the beach, the Army Corps of Engineers required easements on several beachfront properties. Two dozen other beachfront homeowners agreed to have various easements placed on a portion of their land nearest to the edge of the sand dune, but Florio and Novak would not agree to permanent easements unless certain conditions were met.
The Town Meeting action came after negotiations with Florio and Novak fell through, and a deadline for action loomed. After the Town Meeting vote in October 2009, Florio said she planned to take legal action. The suit was filed in late September of this year, and in recent weeks the town has responded and the court has set deadlines for filings and a decision.
The suit, submitted by Novak, who is a Worcester attorney, alleges that the town didn’t need to take the easements on the property, that the procedures were flawed and that the taking has diminished the value of the land, which the town assesses at $750,000. Novak also argues that the easement agreement allows the town to put up fencing on the land to provide habitat for piping plovers, an endangered shorebird.
Novak argues that the 6,500 square feet of land that the easement was placed on amounts to about 40 percent of the property, and that his property “did not suffer from major erosion problems prior to the taking.”
In its response, the town has denied all of Novak’s claims, and argues that the “monetary benefit of the Army Corps of Engineers beach nourishment project far outweighed any claim of “damages” due to an easement. The project — which helped address severe beach erosion for only a limited number of lots and homeowners — cost millions of dollars expended by federal, state and local governments,” wrote lawyer Ginny Sinkel Kremer on behalf of the town.
This is the second time in the past several months that a homeowner lawsuit has been filed related to erosion on Plum Island. In 2011, the state appellate tax board ruled in favor of a suit filed by Novak and Florio and five other neighbors.
The court agreed that negative publicity about Plum Island’s erosion woes had created a “stigma” that hurt property values. The six homes saw their property assessments decrease by 15 percent, which in dollar terms amounted to about $1,100 to $1,500 per household.