Communities grapple with who is responsible for protecting roads and property
By MONICA ALLARD COX/ecoRI News contributor
Florida’s Highway A1A runs along the Atlantic coast, in some cases on a narrow strip of barrier beach, from the state’s northern border all the way to Key West. In St. Johns County, a portion of the road was prone to washouts during hurricanes, and in 1979, the state moved the road further from the coast and gave ownership of a 1.6-mile stretch of road to the county.
Despite already having a 25-year history of erosion in 1979, adjacent properties continued to be developed. The county struggled to maintain the road for several years, when a storm turned the middle segment of it into a beach, cutting the road in half. In 2004, a hurricane washed away the southernmost portion of the road. The county even built a $1 million berm to protect the road, but it, too, soon washed away.
Residents eventually sued the county for failing to maintain the road and preventing them access to their homes. Could Rhode Island face such a scenario?
Last October’s post-tropical cyclone Sandy destroyed homes in Matunuck, in some cases despite expensive revetments designed to protect them, according to Janet Freedman, coastal geologist for the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). Misquamicut suffered heavy damages, as did Narragansett’s Coast Guard House restaurant and the town’s seawall.
Still, Rhode Island’s barrier beaches are relatively undeveloped, Freedman said, thanks in part to hurricanes that hit the state in 1938 and 1954. “A lot of those areas were bought by the state and are now under CRMC jurisdiction,” Freedman said, noting that development of barriers is now prohibited. “There are still a lot of private holdings, but they’re not allowed to be redeveloped.”
Nevertheless, there are some areas in Rhode Island where disputes over measures to deal with an eroding coastline have arisen among municipalities, home and business owners, environmental advocates, and the state.
South Kingstown’s Matunuck Beach Road has faced increasing threats from erosion. In 2011, the town requested that the CRMC permit the building of a seawall to protect the road, which serves as the only access for 250 homes. A water pipe serving some 1,600 customers also runs under the road.
The CRMC initially denied the permit, which critics said could destroy the beach adjacent to the wall, along with area properties and businesses such as the Ocean Mist bar. One lawyer compared the enormity of the wall that would have been required to effectively combat erosion as akin to building the Great Wall of China.
In a memorandum to the council, CRMC executive director Grover Fugate called for the construction of a temporary sheet-pile wall as a “stop gap” to protect the health and safety of the area’s residents. In the meantime, he proposed that the CRMC could work with the town on more effective long-term strategies that would protect both the road and the beach. The council relented, and the CRMC developed draft regulations for experimental coastal erosion control methods, such as geomattresses that dissipate wave action, to be tested in Matunuck and Westerly.
These measures will be part of a larger Beach Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) the CRMC is initiating with assistance from the University of Rhode Island, the URI Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant that will look at erosion hot spots all along the state’s shoreline.
What isn’t likely to be a major focus of the plan are seawalls, which, according to Freedman, offer limited protection from storms and erosion.
“People have a false sense of safety if they have a seawall,” she said. “If shoreline structures were built to specifications that would actually protect properties in a hurricane, they would be prohibitively expensive, no one would see the coast because they would be so high, and they’d have to extend onto public lands.”
That issue of ownership has been a contentious one in Massachusetts, Freedman said, citing a case of a seawall that private property owners can’t afford to maintain and are seeking to have the municipality take on that responsibility.
In Misquamicut during Sandy, “dunes and setbacks worked much better” than many of the revetments, Freedman said. Still, setbacks and prohibitions against development mean that some areas that might have been developed as homes or hotels remain vacant.
“Most coastal communities generate a lot of money from their coasts — it’s a big property tax base,” Freedman said. “Coastal communities have to balance a lot of things, and it’s not easy.”
Florida problems remain
In Florida earlier this year, St. Johns County and the residents came to a settlement that the county will make a good-faith effort to maintain the road “as is.” With so many low-lying coastal areas in Florida, however, Thomas Ruppert, coastal community outreach coordinator for Florida Sea Grant, said the pressures on his state’s seaside property owners from erosion, flooding and hurricane damage are increasing.
Changes to flood maps and increases to National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) premiums are “causing people to lose their homes already, and it’s just getting started,” he said. Ruppert described the story of one couple who gave up their home when their flood insurance rates increased by $1,000 a month.
“It’s especially hard in these poor, rural areas,” he said. Still, he noted that, “the public does not have the money to protect all private property owners and guarantee that they will not be harmed by coastal hazards.”
Ruppert, a lawyer, cited a Florida study that showed most people who bought homes in high-erosion coastal zones were often unaware of coastal hazards and development restrictions affecting their properties, despite a requirement that they be notified at the time of purchase.
That notice may be buried in the “big stack of paper” buyers sign at a closing; “you’ll be there for hours if you read through every page,” Ruppert said, noting that with having a real-estate agent and a lawyer helping them through the purchase, many buyers may feel that “if it were a problem, somebody would tell me, right?”
Ruppert called for “meaningful disclosure” so that those buying homes in highly eroding areas “will do it with open eyes.”
More than 30 years ago, Ruppert said, local governments in Florida avoided lawsuits by allowing property owners to develop their land, even in threatened areas. Now, he warned governments may face more economic and legal liability if they do allow development in hazardous areas.
While some Florida communities have been reluctant to recognize the threats exacerbated by climate change and sea-level rise, and resistant to government regulation of their property, Ruppert hopes to use the NFIP as a “lever” for working with local communities to reduce their flooding risks. This may lower a town homeowners’ flood insurance rates through the Community Rating System program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He also is approaching local business owners, who, he hopes will be receptive to measures that adapt to natural hazards.
It’s important, he said, “to at least start that conversation.”
Monica Allard Cox is the communications director for Rhode Island Sea Grant. This story originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2013 edition of 41°N, a publication of Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island.