By Dave Rogers
---- — PLUM ISLAND — Plum Island Center and the battered beaches to its south have reopened to the public, more than two weeks after a powerful winter storm slammed the coastline and led to the destruction of six beachfront houses.
Newbury selectmen Chairman Joe Story said the decision was made after town and police officials determined the public was no longer in danger from houses or debris injuring them. Story also said most of the heavy machinery, used to demolish the six houses, shore up others and build massive seawalls to protect those still standing, were off the beach.
That stretch of beach is heavily used by the public throughout the summer months, and is also a popular place in the offseason, particularly for people walking their dogs. And that was in evidence as warmer weather brought more people out to the coastline over Easter weekend.
People visiting the beach will see a much different landscape. Other North Shore points — like Gloucester’s Lanes Cove, Good Harbor Beach and Long Beach shared by Gloucester and Rockport — took heavy hits from the barrage of February and March storms, but Plum Island was socked the hardest.
Gaps are clearly visible where the six houses once stood. The dune suffered severe erosion during the early March storm, and since then tons of rocks have been dumped on the dune edge in order to “armor” it. In many areas the rocks are not visible anymore because sand has been dumped on top of them.
Enforcing the beach closure taxed the resources of the town’s small police department, which issued trespassing summonses to about 15 people who chose to defy the order.
Newbury police Chief Michael Reilly said he initially sent extra patrols during periods of low tide and good weather, predicting those were the times when most curiosity seekers would try to access the beach. The extra patrols were in addition to large message board signs placed near Plum Island Airport, Plum Island Center and yards of yellow police tape.
“For the most part the public was fantastic. They stayed away from the restricted area, they understood,” Reilly said. “There were just a few curiosity-seeking people who blatantly ignored the warnings. They were dealt with.”
According to police records, all those issued trespassing summonses were from out of town.
“Plum Island is a tight-knit community,” Reilly said. “I just got the feel the residents know what’s going on and know to respect the safety issues and give the homeowners and property owners their privacy.”
Story said a factor that led to the beach reopening was a community cleanup of the beach last week. About 60 people took part in the grass-roots clean-up effort, collecting enough wood, snow fencing and other debris to fill a large Dumpster and a separate bonfire-sized pile of refuse. Coordinating the effort at Plum Island Taxpayers Association hall was Newbury conservation agent Doug Packer with assistance from Plum Island state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester.
“I’m glad the beaches are open and we want to thank all the people who cleaned it up and made it possible,” Story said.
The announcement came just before today’s annual start of the piping plover nesting season that results in the closure of the beach at the nearby Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.
From April 1 to at least July, the refuge’s 6 miles of beaches will be off-limits to visitors to provide the federal endangered species an undisturbed nesting habitat. Officials at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge said generally the entire beach is reopened to the public by mid- to late August.