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Dredging on hold; coir bags planned for Plum Island

Mayor Donna Holaday

Posted on September 29, 2021

NEWBURYPORT — With sand from the Merrimack River dredging project on hold, the city is moving forward with an estimated $450,000 backup plan to install wood pilings and coir bags as short-term protection along Reservation Terrace.

Earlier this month, Mayor Donna Holaday secured $350,000 from the state for the project.

On Monday, the City Council unanimously approved the transfer of $100,000 from the Plum Island utility trust fund to the Reservation Terrace shoreline protection account for additional funding for the project.

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides authorized the use of state funding after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers only received one bid for the dredging project.

The dredging was supposed to begin this fall and replenish much-needed sand on the beaches around Reservation Terrace. The government expected the cost to be about $4.8 million, but the lone bid came in at $8.9 million, or nearly twice what was expected, according to the mayor.

Ward 1 Councilor Sharif Zeid, who chairs the Committee on Budget & Finance, addressed some of the questions he anticipated people would have about the plan.

Coir bags are made out of coconut husks and other natural materials, so they would not pollute the beaches like the shredded plastic from the “Super Sacks” that were previously used, Zeid explained.

The sacks were standalone sandbags, but the coir bags will be sewn together, vertically and horizontally, to create more of a wall. They would be filled with sand and be very heavy. Wooden pilings would be driven into the ground to prevent the bags from moving forward or backward, he said.

“The idea is to make it as solid as possible as one unit,” Zeid said.

It is unclear how long the coir bags will last, with the efficacy rate depending partly on design and partly on luck, he said.

Coir bags have been used successfully in other communities, but it depends on how nor’easter season hits the region.

GZA GeoEnvironmental has created the design for the project and SumCo Eco-Contracting will be seeing it through. The city’s Conservation Commission approved the project in the spring, knowing this might be a backup plan if the dredging project were delayed.

For those wondering if alternatives have been considered, there are three constraints: financial, regulatory and physical, Zeid said.

Regulatory constraints have been the main challenge over the years, he said, noting that the local Conservation Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection are against the use of hard structures on the beach.

Zeid also noted that some residents are already in jeopardy of losing their homes. At least three homes had their water shut off earlier this month because of erosion and have been receiving water through garden hoses and a temporary valve since then. Those homeowners are still waiting for answers as far as what’s next.

“We’ve already lost and now we’re trying to preserve beyond those bounds,” Zeid said, explaining the urgent need for answers on the island.

Ward 6 Councilor Byron Lane asked about a long-term plan.

Zeid said the dredging — and the sand that would be hauled to Plum Island for beach replenishment — is the most immediate action that needs to take place. After that, he believes there should be modification to the spur of the stone jetty.

Efforts by Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Seth Moulton to get the Army Corps to address this issue are being made, but “don’t hold your breath,” Zeid said.

Also during the meeting, the council unanimously rejected a proposal to amend zoning to allow for wind turbines along the old Interstate 95 access road. When a zoning amendment such as this fails, it cannot come back before the council for at least two years.

The council also voted 10-1 to approve Community Preservation Act funding totaling $50,000 for the YWCA of Greater Newburyport related to the development of Hillside Center for Sustainable Living, featuring 10 affordable units.

The approval included conditions for the YWCA and the project’s developer to ensure a commitment to the construction and use of these affordable units.

Ward 5 Councilor James McCauley voted in opposition because he believes in a strict reading of what Community Preservation Act funding can be used for and questioned the procedure.

The details of these conditions and other matters from the meeting Monday can be found in the council packet at


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