The Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC), after another evening filled with heated testimony, issued its decision on a request by the Town of South Kingstown to reclassify a portion of shoreline along Matunuck Beach Road. CRMC would not be forced to make a potentially precedential decision based on an eleventh hour situation being put before them for resolution.
In a 6-2 vote, the Council voted no, voicing concern with reclassifying the existing shoreline designation of “Coastal Headlands Bluffs and Cliffs” to that of a “manmade shoreline.”
Anthony Affigne, CRMC member, made his feelings clear from the moment he took his seat.
“I want to indicate a great deal of frustration with the 11th hour situation. “I went to Matunuck Beach Road. It is clear that the erosion has continued,” he said. Having conducted a site visit just prior to the meeting, Affigne was adamant in his contempt for the lack of prior mitigation sources.
“Town officials have known for decades and been aware for decades. We have our backs against the wall and [we] are being forced to make a decision,” argued Affigne. “We are here in a situation of imminent peril.”
The Town’s case, presented by Steve Alfred, who holds the titles of Town Manager and Public Safety Director, is also premised on imminent peril. The road leading into Matunuck is in danger of failure. The Town has been before the Council on several occasions concerning the Matunuck Headlands issue. The last on April 10, requesting approval for the construction of a sheet pile wall along a 202 ft. stretch of Matunuck Beach Road is pending reconsideration. The section of road in question housing the community’s water line is being compromised by storm surge and coastal erosion.
The April 10 hearing also ended in the Town’s application being struck down. Many residents, property owners and environmental watchdog agencies who testified in opposition, also opposed the reclassification. Some, represented by counsel, lent their support with limitations on restrictions and stipulations. The Town’s petition for reconsideration of the sheet pile wall application was tabled in light of the reclassification hearing and will be heard on May 8.
The reclassification to manmade shoreline, proposed for an approximately 1400 ft. stretch of coast, represented the Town’s efforts to assist property owners and residents attempting to erect protective measures along the southerly, seaward side of 11 affected parcels.
The current natural designation, usually attached to coastline along Type I waters, affords less opportunity for the placement of permanent protective structures for private property owners. The Coastal program specifically prohibits “construction on or alteration of coastal cliffs and bluffs and contiguous areas where such construction or alteration has a reasonable probability of causing or accelerating erosion or degrading a generally recognized scenic vista.”
Supportive of previous discussions with property owners, the Town adopted the posture that the change to “Manmade Shoreline” properly reflected the “historic character of portions of the Matunuck shoreline.” Manmade Shoreline is not typical of Type I water designation, another issue to be considered by the Council as the Matunuck Shoreline is Type I. The new designation, if approved, would have provided property owners an administrative vehicle providing for the construction of protective structures.
A mixture of business and residential concerns, two of the parcels of immediate concern house the Ocean Mist and Tara’s Pub, small businesses, whose owners are concerned not only for their properties and livelihood, but for that of their employees. In May 2011, the two businessmen submitted Preliminary Determination requests for construction of a combined sheet wall and riprap structure, seaward of their properties. Coastal storms and the combined efforts of all interested parties in reaching viable solutions had those applications tabled.
Represented by William Landry at the latest hearing, the business owner’s presented a case more supportive of beach nourishment, replenishment and conservation. “We ask that we be given the opportunity to present an appropriate solution within the next year that involves beach replenishment and addresses compliance issues,” provided Landry, referencing the outstanding issue of coastal compliance violations.
Several environmental agencies came forth to testify in opposition to the reclassification. Calling forth visions of the Great Wall of China, each presented the issue of precedential caution. A decision in favor of reclassification would bring forth property owners up and down the coastline.
Brian Wagner, representing the Surfrider Foundation, Rhode Island Chapter, spoke against the erection of seawalls in general and opposed reclassification of shoreline in favor of private construction concerns. Wagner made it clear that the foundation was opposed to the reclassification and reconsideration requests, cautioning the Council. “It’s the first step down a very slippery slope.”
Tricia K. Jedele, representing the Conservation Law Foundation, cautioned the Council about making decisions not provided for in the CRMC Red Book. “Who has the ability to request a reclassification? Can the Town request it? Can any individual who owns coastal property request a reclassification?” she asked. “Your program is not clear.”
What was clear, was the report prepared by CRMC staff in advance of the Council’s reclassification decision. A change to manmade shoreline would have to include stipulations concerning any subsequent construction and Army Corp of Engineers involvement.
The Council, now faced with a reclassification request absent the proposed hard structure wall, replaced with a beach replenishment proposal of sorts – a flip-flop on issues, seemed perplexed. “Had a request for replenishment been submitted, it would have been signed the next day,” responded Grover Fugate, CRMC Director.
Was there ever a Great Wall of China on the table or was there actually a Chinese Wall – a veritable lack of connection put in place by opposing side’s inability to communicate? The turnout of residents, Town officials, environmentalists, conservationists and the litany of attorneys tells the story. Place the Great Wall proposal on the shelf and consider the Chinese Wall breached. There has been a call to the table.
Open for discussion are many questions concerning the future of the seaside community of Matunuck. Is there an issue of imminent peril? Will the road fail? How does the Town provide for public health and safety, absent the ability to protect Matunuck Beach Road? When and how will beach replenishment be accomplished?
Perhaps the most important question is one without immediate answer. “Will New England’s changing weather patterns afford Matunuck the benefit of a year’s time?”
The seaside community escaped the wrath of a harsh New England winter. Time and weather, as virtual unknowns for the future, a decision has to be made.
“You’ve got everybody’s attention,” said Landry. “Golden moments fly.”