Plum Island Homeowners Ignore State Regulations, Shore Up Homes

Excavators work to shore up beachfront homes on Plum Island. (Bruce Gellerman for WBUR)

Excavators work to shore up beachfront homes on Plum Island. (Bruce Gellerman for WBUR)

NEWBURY, Mass. — In the aftermath of a recent series of devastating winter storms, some Plum Island property owners are building giant barriers on the beach to protect their homes. State officials say their efforts, while understandable, are illegal.

Teresa Richey and her husband Mark live on the Plum Island beachfront. The price for an ocean view like theirs is steep, and the view a lot steeper since the most recent storm eroded more of the shoreline along this part of the island.

The Richeys moved into their new, custom-designed home just six days before the last nor’easter hit. The home is done in imported stone and exotic hardwoods.

“You can be sure that this house was built to the best,” Teresa Richey said. “Whatever was the best thing available we did.”

The house is just one of two on this part of the island built on steel beams driven 40-feet deep into the sand. There are three bedrooms, and every room in the house has an ocean view.

State officials say armoring the shoreline with rocks and cement won't help protect homes in the long run. (Bruce Gellerman for WBUR)

State officials say armoring the shoreline, an expensive process for homeowners, won’t help protect homes in the long run. (Bruce Gellerman for WBUR)

“Isn’t it amazing? We see the sun rise from here. Every day is different, including today, we’re seeing the bulldozers with all the rocks,” she said.

Up and down the beach bulldozers and excavators work in tandem, digging deep trenches then filling them up with huge rocks or concrete cubes that look like giant, gray dice, and covering everything over with sand.

The process is called beach armoring. The giant rocks that form an artificial dune are called riprap. Armoring is expensive — $40,000 a home. In the aftermath of the storm, 10 shoreline Plum Island homeowners agreed to spend the money to protect their properties.

One contractor, who didn’t want his name used, was working on one of the homes.

“Dunes behind the houses need to be somehow stabilized and secured. There are a couple of different ways people are doing it,” he explained. “Some folks are going with the blocks of cement. We’re doing it a little bit differently. We’re using random shaped stone to best facilitate stability and drainage.”

That’s in theory. Greg Berman, a coastal process scientist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, says in practice using riprap can make things worse because rocks reflect energy from waves.

“So when it bounces off it actually expends a lot more energy in a shorter space,” Berman said. “There’s a lot of turbulence in the water which can excavate out sand in front of that riprap and then it has the energy to transport it further offshore. So the overall lowering of the beach in front of riprap is, depending on the environment, fairly typical.”

Whether armoring the beach on Plum Island will work is debatable. What’s not open to discussion is that it’s illegal here.

“Armoring of a dune, first of all, is not allowed in Massachusetts, it’s also not allowed in virtually every other coastal state,” said Ken Kimmell, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Earlier this week, Kimmell sent Plum Island property owners a letter acknowledging their difficulties, but warning them that, ultimately, armoring their beach fronts will not prevent flooding during storms, or erosion.

“There’s a lot of work that’s going on on the beach right now and I did not want people to think that this was work we had in any way approved of,” Kimmell said.

Kimmell warned Plum Island homeowners that they’ll soon have to pay to remove the dune armor. But Richey isn’t phased.

“I’d like to make a statement and be the first one in line to go to jail. And let’s see what happens. They won’t like me in jail, I’ll drive them crazy,” Richey said with a laugh. “I mean, I don’t think that we’ve done anything to go to jail. Do you?”

The state has given property owners until the end of the storm season to take down their barriers. Otherwise there will be a showdown over the shoreline fortifications.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/bailey.adams.549 Bailey Adams

    well what kind of idiot builds on a sand bar. i hope the house falls in. as far as jail, oh yeah, they dont deal with idiots who run their mouths all the time. this lady is a tool bag

    • Samaritan

      Manhattan. Venice. Probably lots of other cities. I say let them reinforce their homes.

      • http://twitter.com/37ft2in Cat

        Those aren’t barrier islands.

    • MayCoolerHeadsPrevail

      These houses were built when the ocean was two dunes and hundreds of feet away. Some of the erosion has occurred due to actions of the federal and state authorities. Emotionally, I support these people trying to protect their homes. Unfortunately, the article did not say what the DEP believes will be the negative consequences of the barrier building.

      • ab cd

        The article did say that the walls of rock will only reflect the energy from the waves and erode the beach much faster.. seems kind of negative to me

        • psoreilly

          How is that negative if the beach is eroding anyway? Delay the erosion of the beach, but destroy some homes in the process That sounds more negative to me.

    • b2ux

      the same stupid people that build on top of the worlds worst man made infections there is a train buried there with infections so bad there is no cure for any of them a lot of them result in a horrid death one wrong dig and the whole island would have to be nuked to protect the rest of the world just goes to show you how stupid yankess really are …….

  • maraith

    You can live in your dream home. Just don’t ask me to pay for it, either when you illegally mess up the ecology for all of us or by reimbursing you for the loss of your house. You chose to live in that location and knew the rules. Live with your choice.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500027015 Rob Chamberlain

      . I agree that if this is their dream and they have money to burn, go for it..

      – please don’t damage the beach for others to use -which is looks they are doing..
      - please don’t have taxpayers subsidize this through federal flood insurance..
      - don’t treat the thousands of dollars in structures as a deduction on your taxes -

      - don’t lobby the Federal government to spend more millions on dredging and and delivery to save homes build on sand..

  • Pete2

    The sense of entitlement has run that far in that part of the country.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jenn.kanzeeaton Jenn Kanze-Eaton

      Hey I live in “that part of the country”! Arrogance in entitlement not ours exclusively and most of us think people like that women (shudder) featured in this story is a putz.

  • Elisa Maistrellis-Ryng

    …won’t the dune armor simply divert the water to the locations of other properties? I sympathize with the homeowners–especially those whose properties have been there for decades and who once had hundreds of feet of frontage.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Samuel-Sitar/100001444731897 Samuel Sitar

    leave the barriers. you need physical protections. lawmaker power won’t do.

  • Dennis

    So arrest them.

    • dr2chase

      No point — it’ll cost money, take months (years) of haggling in court, etc. Or we can wait for the next big storm in the next year or two, and the house is gone. Problem solved. That “armor” is not enough. (Why do we have the law? Because it means that nobody else is on the hook when the “armoring” fails, and if homeowners would give up now it would cost them less.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002644397738 Lior Samson

    “We’ve got the money. We can do what we want. The laws and rules don’t apply to us. And just look at that beautiful view.” Words fail in the face of such spoiled arrogance.

  • Elizabeth_in_RI

    This is what happens when you have more money than brains! Barrier beaches are supposed to move – that’s how they work. And no amount of armoring (or money) will prevent that. Yes, he should go to jail. Just like any punk who steals from another, this arrogant rich guy has stolen from his neighbors, the state and all other users (ecosystem and human) of the beach.

    • psoreilly

      And the rain is supposed to hit the ground but I suspect you have a roof over your head. Your sentiments are just jealousy. There is no threat to the ecosystem from putting a pile of rocks in front of your house. I don’t feel particularly sorry for these predominantly rich homeowners, but this jealousy induced policy has to stop. People that live along the ocean have every right to try and protect their homes at their own expense. Half the people in this state live in homes that filled in some wetland habitat to get built, just look at the Back Bay in Boston…. It really was the Back Bay until it got filled in. Should we just let Boston be reclaimed by the sea because that is what nature intended?

      • Elizabeth_in_RI

        Actually jealousy has nothing to do with it – my family owns a home on Cape Cod so I appreciate the appeal of the sea. But in the days when money was an issue for most people, the “old timers” understood that building on a shifting shoreline was a bad idea. They built their “permanent” homes inland in protected areas. Along the shore shacks were built for temporary use – understanding that the next big storm was likely to wash them away. That lack of understanding is the problem we now have – there is an assumption among some that they can just throw money at the problem and it will go away

        The use of stone on a shoreline virtually ensures that the properties on either side will experience even great erosion due to the increased wave energy bouncing off of those stones. The beach itself will essentially be lost – eliminating the beach ecosystem and the public use of a dry beach (hence my earlier statement that they were “stealing”).

        Regarding Back Bay – I understand that it was bay that got filled – at a time when we didn’t recognize the cost of that. Rising sea level will likely reclaim much of Back Bay – so I guess it will become a moot point.

        • psoreilly

          I think your value system needs a check. These rocks will protect these homes, even if it is just a short to medium term solution. It is just very simple engineering.

          Yes, that could contribute to erosion on the beach, but not necessarily so. We are talking about waves that will only seldomly hit these rocks during large storms, not some every day occurrence. The wave action in the meantime will either go along eroding the beach or building it back up depending on the tides and weather.

          I don’t agree with your value judgement. They are not taking from anyone, just physically protecting their homes on their own property the way countless other people have built and protected their homes in places inland that need quite a bit of engineering to build.

          Rust is a force of nature too, doesn’t mean we should let our bridges fall down.

          It is up to the public if we want to pay to bring in more sand to protect the beach. The property line is the important thing here. Let them protect their own homes on their own property, then let the public protect their beach on their property. If we want to protect the beach, then the public needs to come up with the money to protect this as a public resource by trucking in new sand from someplace else.

          Otherwise, I say let the beach erode unless the community and beach goers are willing to pay for trucking in the sand themselves. But the homes themselves are the homeowners responsibility and the state should not interfere with that unless they go and take the homes by eminent domain.

          • Elizabeth_in_RI

            Perhaps my values are a bit different than yours because I value more than just things and I am concerned about more than just short term benefits for individuals.

            Long term thinking and the desire to build something that would last, particularly community, were once hallmarks of what made this country great. Our current fanaticism with “stuff” and showing off our short term profits has, and will continue, to catch up with us a society.

            But I’m sure you will not approve of this – so shall we agree to disagree? The sad reality is that the wealthy will continue to gain the spoils without being held accountable – and the rest of us will just have to pay whatever price that selfishness creates.

          • psoreilly

            Get off your high horse. I’ve been fighting to protect wetlands, habitat and water quality most of my life. Nothing these homeowners are doing is causing any harm to anyone else or the environment.

          • Elizabeth_in_RI


          • psoreilly

            To quote a judge in a recent case involving violation of wetlands laws: “Change does not equal harm”

  • Mike Johnson

    Building a new home on a barrier beach, especially on Plum Island, is the epitome of wealth, ignorance, and entitlement. Barrier beaches are dynamic systems and will not remain static even with huge investments to harden and renourish the beaches. As sea levels rise and winter storms become more frequent and intense due to climate change, coastal beach systems will change at greater rates than they have been historically. Tax payers should not be footing the bill, through federal flood insurance programs and beach nourishment for this risky and ill conceived behavior.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698528769 Newburyport ManAbout Town

      Working Irish families from Charlestown built many of the cottages on Plum Island in the 1950′s…You don’t know what you’re talking about……..There is only one strip on Plum Island that is in danger of high tides….Most of Plum Island dunes are growing…….The Eco-Zealots are not interested in that fact, and it’s not reported by the PC Media.

      • mia

        This article isn’t talking about old cottages. It’s talking about new homes in an area that is known to be eroding.

      • ab cd

        how are the dunes growing? also I’m pretty sure more than “one strip” is in danger from the rising tides seeing as how it is *an island*

  • Hymie G

    No need to arrest anyone. Just tear down the barriers and keep billing the homeowners. If they physically try to block the deconstruction, the bill will just keep going up. Liens on all of their other properties. They will stop.

  • Rollover35

    Arrogant jerks. Flaunt your wasteful spending on a house that you had to know would be overtaken by the sea eventually. Anyone who owns a house on a beach knows that . Your personal decision to build there smacks of entitlement. I HOPE the house is lost, serves you right. When I walk by your house this summer, I will be sure to flip you the bird

  • Coastal Access

    I suggest the Plum Island homeowners hire engineers instead of contractors. I’m sure there are various ways to preserve ocean front homes. I’m curious, though, about a number of other things. Did they get home insurance after building on sand? Did the Newburyport folks give them a building permit; did the city building inspector approve it? Lastly, if money isn’t a concern, why not just replace the house when this one finally falls in?

  • jefe68

    These people seem to be fools with way to much money to burn.
    This can’t be fixed with engineering, it’s the sea and in the end it’s going to win.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christie.ley1 Christie Ley

    What gets my goat is how insurance will cover damage done to these houses after storms hit. If people choose to live in an area that is prone to constant storm damage, they should have to pay the cost of rebuilding. Better yet, tear the houses down so others don’t have to pay ever increasing insurance premiums due to constant rebuilding…

    • David F

      No, they should be able to get insurance, only it should be a block of insurance that is separated out from the usual homeowner’s insurance blocks, so that the inland homeowners are not subsidizing insurance for those living in extremely high risk areas. Yes it will cost them more and their insurance company options may be severely limited, but it’s all part of the cost and risk they accepted by building there.

      This should go for all high risk building areas, earthquake zones, tornado zones, flood zones etc.

  • vonnetaylor

    Something is not right here. These people get to break the law without consequence, and meanwhile none of us can go for a walk on the beach without being arrested?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004045194048 Engorgio Penissio

    The Entitled Democrats…

    • nothanks

      Disregarding environmental concerns for their own personal interests, and defending the actions with “we can afford it”… screams “Republican” to me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jenn.kanzeeaton Jenn Kanze-Eaton

      Where does THAT come from?! Since we are speaking in generalizations, aren’t all Dems environmentalists? Entitled idiots, yes. Political affiliations, unknown. Jeez.

  • http://www.facebook.com/salazane Nelson Salazar

    I cant stand anymore hearing from the poor from Plum Island losing their summer homes. Whenever one screws with nature, nature screws you later. Is the cause and effect law.

  • http://twitter.com/37ft2in Cat

    Whoa. This homeowner is….awful. Plum island has been eroding for years and nobody should be moving on let alone building and breaking the law just because they’re rich. I have no sympathy for those guys.

  • http://twitter.com/freudianid Ryan Hopkins


    Hahahaha… The company where the Richeys made their money claims they are a “Green Business” with a biomass generator and a wind turbine on their property to boot. I’m sure those green initiatives were done solely for P.R. and tax benefit purposes. Also, they are filed as a Woman Business Enterprise, something medium sized businesses do all the time to aquire goverment work more easily, even though the owner is usually just the wife of the owner.

    I hope the next wave washes a blue whale right into the side of their house which “was built to the best” and I’m sure with extremely sustainable forested supplies (more like 400 year old brazilian cherry).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000940974025 Cheryl Comeau

    Richey, I’d like to say I will stand right behind you in the line to go to jail. because no one is going to take away the wall protecting my home. We will be standing united.It’s ironic, society turned their backs on me when I was a
    kid because we lived on SLUM Island and were considered poor people. Now
    society turns their back on us because we live on Plum Island and are
    considered wealthy. Neither is true. How about just leave us alone and allow us
    to save our house at our own expense.

    • Joan67

      arrogance at it’s best. you build on the beach this is your consequence. tear all the homes down and be done with all your bs.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698528769 Newburyport ManAbout Town


        Plum Island dunes are growing in most areas……Bet you didn’t hear that in your PC Newspaper…..Let people live….The seabirds get along quite well with humans there……Stop the Eco-Quackery please.

    • cj01950

      Slum Island’s houses are butt-ugly. The ocean view is nice so– wash away mother nature!

      And to the idiot that rebuilt just a year or two ago (replacing a former house that fell in the wash), good luck!

  • Joan67

    They should be made to remove those boulders from the beach. Who do they think they are ignoring laws and doing what ever the heck they want. It’s the I’m so rich I can do what i want. Tear all the houses down on this small island and be done with this BS.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carol.buchanan.58 Carol Buchanan

    This makes me sick. Who do they think they are? Richey, your comment about Slum Island is way off. I lived there and never heard it called that. Must have just been you and your slummy family. You are dispicable the way you disrespect the environment and the law. The laws are there for a reason and we all have to follow them. You included.

  • David F

    If placing the beach armoring is illegal, why are they being allowed to do it in the first place? It’s not like they are sneaking in at night and doing it. Stopping them after the fact seems silly. Send a few police cruisers to work sites and have the work stopped if you don’t want it done in the first place. If only ten property owners are doing this it’s not like it would have been a lot of work for the police.

    I think you should be able to live where you choose. However when you choose to live in a location you are also choosing to accept the risks associated with living there. You are also by default accepting the local laws. Beach erosion is nothing new. The laws against beach armoring are not new. You wanted a pretty view and you knew the risks going in, you accepted those risks. Now you want to say to hell with the law I’m going to do what I want. Worse you are not fixing the problem, you’re only delaying it for a short time. One day your house will sit on it’s 40′ steel beams (if you’re really really lucky) and you’ll need a rowboat to get to it. Just watch out for all those rocks you put in around it.

    I have no sympathy for you.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698528769 Newburyport ManAbout Town

      These foundations have been around since the 1950′s…….You don’t know what you are talking about……There is only one area of Plum Island that is in danger of high tides…The rest of Plum Island is experiencing dune growth……The seabirds are happy and find humans quite acceptable….Stop the Eco-hysteria please..

      • mia

        This article is discussing the legality of work being done today, not the 1950s.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000940974025 Cheryl Comeau

      I bought my house before the DEP was even established in 1970. local laws associated with plum Island were very reasonable. we were aloud to replace the primary dune when there was a bad storm. its only been since 2000 that I have been prevented from my constitutional right to protect my property.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698528769 Newburyport ManAbout Town

    Get the Eco-Radicals (Environmental Protection Agencies) out of the way…….The government bureaucrat control freaks are costing these people their homes……..


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698528769 Newburyport ManAbout Town

    A owner on 11th Street says he has more dune than ever, after 30-YRS of living on Plum Island……. I don’t think the global warming zealots want to hear that………The damage is isolated to one strip of Plum Island…

    Just the facts mam…..Just the facts.


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698528769 Newburyport ManAbout Town


    Can we please get the Enviro Control Freaks out of the way, so progress can be made for people…..This is about one small strip of Plum Island that is in danger to high tides…..Most of the island is experiencing sand dune growth. …The PC Media are on a disinformation campaign, or a misinformation campaign…….BTW: The seabirds are very healthy and happy with humans around…..Stop the Eco-hysteria please.

    • nothanks

      Nobody is saying that everything east of the Merrimack is going to slide into the ocean, and the humans be damned. The area in danger of high tides is what they’re talking about. Saying “don’t build a house on sand that we all know the ocean is coming to reclaim, and if you do, don’t cry about it when the house falls down” isn’t eco-freaking; it’s common sense.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698528769 Newburyport ManAbout Town

    ……Stop the Eco-Quackery please. Plum Island is experiencing dune growth…..One small strip of that 12-mile island is vulnerable to high tides…….The PC Media avoids news that is not supportive of EPA, etc……The seabirds get along with humans quite well…..There is no “damage” to the eco-system….Perhaps in the minds of control freaks, there is “danger”. We must control people, or there might be “damage” to the eco-system………Rubbish.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000070579809 Michael Morris

    plumislanderosion.com explains what’s going on. These people have turned a blind eye to what is happening. You can’t build a wall big enough to contain the Atlantic much less one when a storm sloshes through it.

  • psoreilly

    DEP is being unreasonable, who cares if it doesn’t work or makes things worse…. These homes are going to be destroyed if nothing is done and solutions DEP proposes are too expensive. There is no real environmental harm being done, while inland DEP rubber stamps the filling in of wetlands for developments on a daily basis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000940974025 Cheryl Comeau

    Do you believe in the United States Constitution?
    Homeowners have the Constitutional right to defend their property.
    Please refer to the case settled in March, 2011 Luhrs v. Whatcom County.
    A Washington Court of appeals agreed that Ms. Luhrs has the
    right to protect her property from erosion with a rock wall. End of story.

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