Fresh Air Injected into Long-awaited Renourishment Beach Project

The Winthrop Beach Renourishment project that will bring more than 650,000 cubic yards of sand to the ever eroding beach on Shore Drive took a major leap late last week and will likely be permitted and approved in a matter of months.

This comes after 10 years of wrangling and arguing about the project among everyone from local residents to various government officials to off-shore shellfishermen.

The top state environmental official on Friday issued a ruling that stated the amended project would not need to go through the long and arduous Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) process again. It was a major hurdle that will once and for all take the project off the drawing board and significantly speed up its implementation – perhaps by years.

“Based on a review of the Notice of Project Change (NPC), consultation with state agencies and a review of comment letters, I hereby determine that no additional MEPA review is warranted,” wrote Richard Sullivan Jr., state secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). “The project may proceed to permitting…The Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) can proceed to permitting of this important and long-anticipated project that will restore storm protection, recreation and habitat to Winthrop Beach.”

State permits required will come from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MDOT). Local permits will come from Conservation Commissions in Winthrop, Revere and Saugus.

The project was first submitted to MEPA in 2001, after careful study revealed that Winthrop Beach had eroded nearly eight feet in many areas. Since that time, it has eroded even further, leaving only large stones and, in some places, moving the shoreline nearly up to the seawall.

The MEPA review took more than five years, with the DCR proposing to take sand from an underwater, off-shore site. That sand would have been shipped by barge to Winthrop Beach and deposited on the Beach for renourishment – or, in other words, replacing the eroded areas with new sand.

By 2006, all state and local permits were in hand and the project was ready to start. However, due to concerns from fishermen and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Army Corps of Engineers stopped the project dead in its tracks, refusing to allow the DCR to take sand from the underwater, off-shore site. The main concern was that it would significantly disturb the ocean bottom and a critical lobster habitat.

An appeal of that decision was denied in early 2010.

Since that time, the DCR has been back at the drawing board, and it appears they have found a way to get the project going again.

The major change that has given the project new life is a change in where the sand is coming from.

Instead of off-shore, the DCR has a plan to take sand from a never-used and defunct highway embankment in the Rumney Marsh areas of Revere and Saugus. The sand is the same sand that was trucked in from New Hampshire decades ago to renourish Revere Beach after the Blizzard of `78. Following that renourishment project, the sand was used for a possible routing of Interstate 95 through Revere and Lynn. That never happened, though, and the large embankment of sand remains as a monument to plans that never transpired.

A total of 650,000 cubic yards of sand will be taken from that site, and also from a small portion from Yirrel Beach in Winthrop. The sand grains are much more fine that the natural sand on Winthrop Beach, but DCR officials believe the sand will work here, as it was used on Revere Beach with some success.

The project in Winthrop will be set up on two sites, a north site and south site. Haul roads will be built on the Beach to deliver the sand via semi-truck. Entrance areas will be at Tewksbury Street and Cutler Streets. Trucks will be accessing Winthrop Shore Drive via Crest Avenue, coming through Revere to Revere Beach Parkway and entering Winthrop from the Short Beach area.

Naturally, the DCR was hoping to avoid bringing trucks into residential areas with the project, but once the off-shore sites were rejected, they indicated there was no other option.

The project is expected to generate more than 150 trips per weekday, but haul times have been restricted to the hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There is also a stipulation that calls for all local roadways on the haul route to be repaved as part of the project.

So far, the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce has lodged some concerns for the business district on Crest Avenue, asking for a temporary enlargement of the municipal parking lot.

One marked concern will be avoiding the fragile habitats of the Piping Plover  and Least Tern birds, both of which are endangered species. The two species are new to Winthrop Beach, but have taken to the area quite readily over the last two or three years. DCR said they would avoid marked habitats and would try to limit work during the times of year when the birds are most prevalent on the Beach.

There have also been some concerns by the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries for storm water runoff from the new sand into the Crystal Cove shellfish population.

Most human Winthrop residents, though, have logged in favor of the long-needed project.

Numerous letters in support of the project were submitted, including one from a resident only named as “Frustrated Taxpayer.”

One public forum was held in Winthrop last month, with a member of the DCR on hand to explain the project.

However, it would seem that no one expected such a quick decision on the MEPA process from Sullivan.

The project is slated to take at least one year, with the north site taking eight months and the south site taking four months. The project will cover some 37 acres of beach with new sand.

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