Tuesday evening brought a full house to Council Chambers as members of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) joined the Town Council, department heads and State Senator V. Susan Sosnowski in joint work session to discuss the continual erosion problem along the Matunuck headland.
The underlying current after three hours of testimony and questions was that of frustration. With no resolution offered and no answers or protection for the Town and property owners in place, the question of “when” lingered in the air throughout the meeting.
“Is there sustainability for the lifetime of that project? We would like to work with you on this. You’re just giving us a temporary solution now. We’re only hearing temporary fix,” said Councilman James O’Neill.
The meeting, scheduled as follow-up to the May 4 CRMC work session, brought a fully seated CRMC to the table. New to the CRMC Council are Tony Affigne, Guillaume de Ramel, Michael Hudner, and Chairperson Ann Maxwell Livingston.
The two bodies of government have met several times to discuss the impact of the emergent situation along 675 feet of beachfront property on Matunuck Beach Road. “We’re here to try and move this process forward," Livingston said. "Obviously our goal is to make everybody happy. I hope that we can all come to a mutual agreement.”
With long-term and short-term goals in mind, Town Council members and CRMC staff presented options available in addressing issues of public safety, access and property retention.
“What I’d like to do at this time is to advise the councils as to the steps [we] have taken,” stated Steve Alfred, Town Manager. “The town staff is determining how we will obtain the CRMC assent to address the public safety concerns associated with the protection of the road.”
Of key concern was how to obtain CRMC assent providing the town with the ability to protect the road should a catastrophic event occur. “Essentially there is an area of approximately 675 ft which is of grave concern to the town,” said Alfred in garnering the members’ attention. Stressing public safety concerns and emphasizing the reality of a breach situation, Alfred cautioned those in attendance.
"Our concern is that with continued erosion on that beachfront, once it reaches the fence line it will be into Matunuck Beach Road. It jeopardizes the public's safety. Not only would we lose a water line that’s there, but we would also lose all of the utilities, the aerial lines for electric, fire alarm and cable.”
A major breach of Matunuck Beach Road would also mean the town could lose access to approximately 500 residential structures, 240 year-round and 256 seasonal.
Town Councilor Kathleen Fogarty expressed her ongoing frustration with the lack of resolution. “We are talking about 240 homes, never mind the seasonal homes, over 500,” Fogarty said in reference to the potential economic and social impact of the potential loss.
“It’s a village we don’t want to lose. It is a source of economic development for the State of Rhode Island. We need the money from the tourists. I want to keep that village in its place.”
Three options were presented by the Town as long-term solutions. The first a reclassification of Type 1 waters, also known as Conservation Areas, be changed to Type 2, or Low-Intensity use.
Explaining the reasoning behind CRMC’s opposition to such a change, Jeffrey M. Willis, Deputy Director of CRMC addressed the issue of coastal water reclassification. Changing the water type from type 1 to type 2 opens everyone up to activities that actually impact restoration efforts and projects in [coastal areas].
Also opposed by the CRMC, according to Alfred, was a possible application for a Special Exception pursuant to section 180 of the Coastal Resource Management plan, allowing for man made shoreline protection measures in Type 1 waters.
Shoreline reclassification was also emphasized as a means to help property owners keep and protect their properties. The second option on the table is to request a change of designation for the 675 ft. area in question from “Headlands, Bluffs and cliffs” to “Manmade Shorelines.”
Alfred implored CRMC to look to the manmade structures on both sides of the property in question. With eight structures in place, Alfred spoke for the town in assuring all, “The Town is dedicated to assisting the property owners.”
Willis, in addressing the reclassification of shoreline, offered some positive information. “Changing to manmade shoreline doesn’t open the door to the Type 2 change difficulties. Although this is not the most preferable solution, [it is] the most palatable one.”
Due to the conservancy of the Type 1 designation, a suggestion was made by Willis that a possible addition of a Coastal Natural Area designation. A higher protection or designation would restrict and manage the upland better, as well as the cobble bank that acts to slow down the wave energy in the area.
A soft measure, such as a “burrito” placement or a sandbag wall, wasn’t seen by the town as an effective and viable option for protecting the homes and businesses in Matunuck.
Janet Freedman, coastal geologist for CRMC, answered questions as to sediment sources, and possible avenues of restoration. The question of trucking in or transferring sand from an area in Point Judith shoring up the beach was considered as a possible short-term solution.
One after one, experts, including John Boothroyd, geologist at University of Rhode Island, spoke to the erosion issues, presenting possibilities and probabilities for short term and long-term issues.
Residents and business owners whose properties fall within the affected 675 feet also spoke to the council. Fran O’Brien, owner of Tara’s Joyce Pub offered his suggestion, a temporary structure consisting of a metal basket with a recyclable inner liner that holds sand in place. O’Brien offered that for approximately $40,000 the 675 feet of property could be protected.
Also presenting CRMC members with an option was Mark Melnick, whose property is located at 929 Matunuck Beach Road. Melnick offered another product, deemed SandGrabber, a sand suspension system also designed to alleviate erosion issues.
Melnick also suggested that if there were going to be a sand replenishment project, it might be more cost effective to use a barge for transfer as opposed to trucking the sand into the area.
Appearing for Save the Bay was Jane Austin, Senior Policy Analyst, who urged CRMC to pursue a balanced strategy for addressing coastal erosion. Cautioning the council as to precedent setting decisions, Austin asked that CRMC proceed in a conservative manner.
Kevin Finnegan, whose business sits in the heart of the area in question, addressed the councils as well. “I don’t think that anyone in this room wants to hurt the beach," he said.
Calling the council’s attention to the shoreline east and west where protections are in place, Finnegan reached out, “That is the only exception to the rule right now-that little 675 feet of beach.If you close that off, then you can bring it into play. Then you get Mr. Boothroyd’s knowledge, Janet’s and CRMC’s knowledge, get URI involved. [It’s] like a little national treasure or town treasure.”
Patch caught up with Anne Maxwell Livingston, Chair of the CRMC after the meeting. In response to the question of the next step in the process, Livingston replied, “I don’t know what the next step is.”