Thursday, July 1, 2010

As shore washes away, buyer plucks Plum Island house

PLUM ISLAND — Before a series of severe storms this spring stole the ground beneath it, the house on Annapolis Way in Newbury proudly overlooked the Atlantic.

Now, it hangs precariously on the brink of a steep sand dune driven back by the unrelenting tides. Its back door, which once opened to a large deck and a staircase to the beach, now leads nowhere, save a sheer 15-foot drop to the sand below.

“Right on the edge,’’ said Michael Webber, a Newburyport real estate agent who is handling the sale of the oceanfront property. “Nowhere to go but back.’’

Despite the home’s fragile foundation, and the accelerating erosion plaguing the 11-mile island, a prospective buyer has emerged with plans to move the home — or build a new one — farther from the bluff.

The news has stirred strong emotions on this wave-whipped barrier beach, where many are confronting the hard fact that oceanfront homes, like the fragile dunes they rest on, might have begun a permanent retreat.

“It’s a barrier beach, and it keeps moving back,’’ said Mary Reilly, a city environmental official in neighboring Newburyport. “Storms are getting stronger, sea levels are rising. It’s a terrible thing, but it’s the reality.’’

In the aftermath of the intense March storms, town inspectors deemed the home dangerous and or dered its residents to leave the premises. The owners, John and Edith Drinkwater, had previously put the home on the market for close to $800,000, a typical price for local oceanfront property. But when powerful waves eroded several feet of the dune and wiped away the deck, they drastically lowered the price to a little less than $300,000.

The day the reduced price was listed, a buyer pounced. The property might be under siege, but it still overlooks the ocean.

“It’s amazing how much interest you can get if you drop the price by half a million,’’ Webber quipped.

The Drinkwaters bought the four-bedroom house in 1999 for $100,000, according to town records.

At one-third of an acre, the property is larger than most Plum Island lots and has room to handle a relocation, Webber said. The town will probably require a new or relocated home be elevated on pilings, he said.

The Daily News of Newburyport reported yesterday that the home was being sold. Several other residents of Annapolis Way were forced to leave their homes during the March storms, although some have since returned after making repairs.

On the beach below the home, several visitors yesterday marveled at the extent of the erosion, and the building’s uneasy perch.

“It wasn’t like that last summer,’’ said Caroline Adams, a 23-year-old from New Hampshire sunbathing in the heat of the day. “The waves took out a big chunk. Too much more and it’s going to topple over.’’

Others said that moving the house back from the brink would only buy the new owners a few years.

Before too long, they would be in the same position as the current owners, they said.

“Just a matter of time,’’ said Mike Barnes, a 42-year-old from Topsfield, as he cast his fishing line into the shallows. “They should enjoy it while they can. We all should.’’

But many residents remain hopeful that the island’s shore can be strengthened. They noted that state environmental officials hope to begin dredging the Merrimack River channel as soon as this fall and use the sediment to reinforce eroded sections of shoreline.

Although bids for the project have been higher than expected, officials say they are working to arrange financing. They hope the addition of some 160,000 cubic yards of sand will stabilize the erosion.

“This is a strategy the state believes is a viable one,’’ said Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for the state’s Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Officials had estimated the project would cost $3.5 million, but when bids were submitted in May, the lowest came back at $5.5 million.

“It’s a big project, but we’re fully committed to it,’’ Williams said.

Others in town believe that the poor condition of the rock jetties that jut into the ocean are more to blame for the erosion and suspect the new sand will vanish as fast as the current stock.

“It might buy another five years,’’ Reilly said.

By Peter Schworm Boston Globe June 25, 2010

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