The dunes at Willard Beach in South Portland, wiped out in a December storm, are in need of restoration, and residents’ discarded Christmas trees will be part of the solution.

The city expects to receive state approval next week for the rehabilitation project that will be the first of its kind in Maine, but has proven successful in other states. The first step in the project is to deposit South Portlanders’ recycled Christmas trees in the dunes to trap blowing sand.

The damage from the Dec. 23 storm was severe, impacting areas between Willard and Beach streets, which includes the location of a sewer main that the dunes help protect.

“The reason that we are going to fortify these dunes is because we have infrastructure that runs from Willard Street to Willow Street, and Willow Street to Myrtle Avenue,” said Kristina Ertzner, the city’s conservation manager. “There’s a sewer force main that runs back in through there that’s buried into the ground.”

The same sewer main cracked and leaked in 2021.

“We really want to make sure that we protect that pipe until, one of these years, we’re able to move it off the beach,” Ertzner said.


The restoration project also will repair the shoreland animal habitats the dunes support and improve the dunes’ role in holding back tidewater and storm surges.

By placing the public works department’s collection of residents’ discarded Christmas trees in the dunes, the city hopes to mimic successful restoration efforts undertaken in Alabama and North Carolina. The trees will be deposited as soon as possible.

“We need to get through some of these snowstorms first,” Ertzner said this week.

The trees will help trap blowing sand in the dunes, which is needed for their restoration. Over time, if the trees don’t trap enough sand, the city will bring some in.

“It’s a pilot project for the state, so we don’t want to throw the trees out there and then just throw sand over the top,” Ertzner said. “We want to see how it works, so we’re going to let it do its own thing.”

Once enough sand settles, the second step is planting dune grass this spring, followed by the third step – waiting. Dune grass can take years to fully root, and the number of years largely depends on the weather.


“If we get a lot of rain and really great, ideal conditions, they could grow pretty fast,” Ertzner said, possibly within five years. “Last summer was really hot. It was really dry. If we end up with something like that we could lose plants – they could die off.”

Watering the dunes can mitigate plant loss, but a hot, dry summer would require replanting the dune grass multiple times, delaying the restoration process. People and dogs on the dunes could also delay the process, she said.

The city estimates the project’s cost at about $20,000.

Under state law, a publicly funded restoration effort can be applied to dunes that protect public infrastructure, in this case, the sewer main. Dunes in front of private properties between Myrtle Avenue and Beach Street will not be part of the project. The city, however, is open to working with residents and organizations on non-city-funded work on the private dune areas, Ertzner said.

“That’s just going to be a matter of us sitting down with some of these people that want to do the work or donate some money and making sure that we’re both on the same page,” she said.

The city is consulting with county officials and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on the project.

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