CRMC To Consider 2nd SK Plan for Matunuck Erosion

After its first application was struck down earlier this week, South Kingstown will present a second one to the Coastal Resources Management Council on April 24 to request shoreline reclassification of  a section of Matunuck headlands. This one has broad-reaching implications, with the reclassification of benefit to private property owners.

It requests a change in shoreline classification for eleven properties along the Matunuck shoreline east and west of the Ocean Mist.

The application, if approved would change the present coastal designation of “Coastal Headlands, Bluffs and Cliffs” to “Manmade Shoreline” for the portion of shoreline in question. The change in designation would allow business and residential property owners more flexibility in choice of protective vehicles.

The public hearing will be held on April 24, 2012 at 6pm in the South Kingstown High School auditorium.

Amid a standing room-only auditorium earlier this week, CRMC members, town officials, residents and an army of attorneys came out to voice concerns over the continued erosion of a 202 ft. expanse of beach. Cradled between man made structures and at the heart of a decades’ long battle of surf and citizenry, the short stint of shoreline is the hub of much community activity.

After hours of testimony, CRMC ended the meeting denying a special exception needed for the project and subsequently voting the application down.

The project presented by Steve Alfred, Town Manager and Public Safety Director, was submitted through application to CRMC in September 2011. Calling for construction of a sheet pile wall with riprap stone armaments, the steel and concrete construction was limited to a critical 202 ft. span of road threatened by the ocean to the south.

Matunuck Beach Road houses the community water line and provides the only road access in and out of the area.

“Failure of the road is a critical public health and safety concern,” said Alfred. People east of the section in question would be without water, fire and emergency services access should the road and underlying line fail.

The rip-rap structure is generally frowned upon by coastal environmentalists as a beach erosion solution and an invasive means of providing for the needs of property owners.

Representatives of several environmental and coastal agencies came forward to voice opposition to the project. Jane Austin, Special Coalitions Liaison for Save the Bay urged CRMC to deny the application as posed. Speaking to CRMC’s Red Book and shoreline protection laws, Austin called upon the Council to advocate for the coastline.

“CRMC should exercise leadership through its handling of the Matunuck issue. Hardening shorelines results in loss of the natural and dynamic boundary between the land and sea, a boundary important for habitat and marine productivity.” While all parties were in agreement that the need for action had passed, each stood its ground in the ever-present tug of war of personal priorities.

Paul Lemont, CRMC member commending the work of the organization, asked Austin to provide a possible remedy. “Every time we get together, all we hear are the negatives,” said Lemont. “Something needs to be done.”

A measured assault on the Town’s plans came from all sides. At every turn came the phrase “the wall will exacerbate the problem.” The wall as proposed would not provide protection from storm surge and flooding. Floodwaters caught roadside, behind the wall would have to dissipate naturally with no vehicle of return built into the project.

“The waters would exit to the east and west and flow under the Ocean Mist property,” explained Robert Fairbanks, an engineer who designed the bulkhead for the Town. “The return is the Ocean Mist. That is how it is happening today.”

Stephen Reid, Jr., representing the owners of the Ocean Mist and Tara’s Pub, both properties sitting on 675 feet of unprotected shoreline extending east to a man-made abutment, questioned the viability of the Town’s plan and apparent lack of interest in finding suitable alternatives. “They have blinders on – sheet pile blinders. They are going to drive the pile along that 202 feet of Matunuck Beach Road.”

Reid hammered home the absence of plan protection for the private property owners, firing questions at Fairbanks. Affirming the project’s primary purpose in protecting the road, Fairbanks shored up Reid’s arguments. The 200 feet of sheet pile wall would not prevent further beach erosion, provide protection for the adjacent property or prevent flooding of the road. In fact, the wall construction would exacerbate the existing beach erosion problem seaward.

“If there is further erosion, the Ocean Mist and all of those properties are going to have a huge problem,” cautioned Fairbanks.

Reid reminded Council members that any riprap structure in support of the sheet pile wall would have to be placed on property not currently owned by the town. “The property owner where the riprap would have to go is Mary Carpenter. My client is in negotiations to purchase that property from Mary Carpenter. The Town has no place to put the riprap,” said Reid.

A right of first refusal to the parcel where the riprap would be extended is currently held by Kevin Finnegan, owner of the Ocean Mist property. The Town also considered purchasing the two parcels directly west of the Ocean Mist as a means of furthering the project. The question of the Town’s ability to provide for the riprap support brought rebuttal from the Town Manager.

“If the right of first refusal is exercised, [we] are prepared to take it through eminent domain. It is not accurate to say that it could not be accomplished,” noted Alfred.

Anthony Affigne, appointed to CRMC last fall, questioned the project’s merits. “I’ve been down there a lot. It’s clear that something needs to be done. I just don’t think this is the answer. I plan to vote no on the request for special exception.”

The Council in roll call agreed, bringing only two votes in favor of the special exception and application.

More than six months have passed since the Town’s application was filed. During that time, Rhode Island coasted through a mild winter with Matunuck property owners being spared the wrath of significant winter storms. The sheet pile wall project set aside lends no answers for the beach community of Matunuck.

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New Yorker by birth, Rhode Islander by design and familial affiliation, writer by craft. Comes to the future having written for local online and print publications at Patch.com and The Jamestown Press. Blogging/reporting between resumes, classes and the quest to find viable, quality full-time work.

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