Climate Change Taking Toll On Matunuck Beach

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — As summer gets underway in the popular Matunuck Beach area, much of the shoreline is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy's 2012 visit, and ongoing erosion. Since 1951, the beach has migrated some 300 feet inland, and erosion and coastal flooding accelerated after a spate of storms that began in 2010.

Along a mile stretch of waterfront, several landmarks and summer destinations are taking different approaches to adapting to the problems brought on by a changing climate.

The Browning cottage. The owner of the remaining iconic summer home and carriage house has dug in — and back — since Sandy. The home was one of five large Queen Anne shingle-style summer homes built hundreds of feet from the beach in 1900. Hurricanes in 1938 and 1954 wiped out several of the large structures.

Increasing beach erosion since the 1970s prompted the owners to move the buildings 50 feet inland. Damage from Sandy led to the demolition of two of the remaining cottages.

Since the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) issued an emergency building permit in 2013, the last home has been pushed back 35 feet, a basement removed and the home elevated atop 16-foot columns made of cement and steel. A 4,500-gallon holding tank was installed in place of a septic system.

A second permit allowed construction of a barrier dune around the buildings. The dune is fortified with sandbags wrapped in natural-fiber logs. The dune touches the edge of the high-tide marker. The owner hopes the home will last 10 more years.

Roy Carpenter’s summer homes. For the first time since 1976, the Fourth of July fireworks display has been canceled. The fire marshal denied a permit because the beach is no longer wide enough to offer a safe distance from the homes.

The former seasonal fishing camp populated with tents and collapsible cottages has evolved into a tight-knit beach community of 377 tiny homes. Most have about 500 square feet of space and rest on cinderblocks. The homes lack septic systems, so residents rely on communal bathrooms or compostable toilets.

A parking lot and a wide beach once provided an ample buffer from Block Island Sound, but erosion has brought the beach to the doorstep of many homes and has caused flooding in the interior of the dense housing development.

Superstorm Sandy washed away three homes from the front row of cottages. Several others were demolished because of structural damage. Farmland behind the 20-odd rows of homes is available to relocate structures from the edge of the beach. Before Sandy, plans were underway to move 28 homes. Of the 20 remaining, four were relocated to the back row this spring.

“We’re trying to find the best balance between nature, humans and everything,” said Rob Thoresen, great-grandson of Roy Carpenter and co-owner of the property.

Town Beach. A site is being prepared for a “managed retreat” of the public beach pavilion.

Since the 1990s, waves and flooding have eaten away at manmade and natural structures. Storms have destroyed a row of protective sand dunes and a boardwalk. Sandy took out a large seating area at the front of the pavilion and sea-level rise threatens the entire structure.

After this summer, the pavilion will be relocated some 300 feet inland. Currently, construction of a leaching field is underway to manage wastewater.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is paying $300,000 of the $400,000 project.

“Hopefully, the pavilion will be standing for another 25 to 50 years,” said Terry Murphy, the town’s director of leisure services.

The Ocean Mist fortified its foundation this spring. The owner is contesting a new wall planned for beside the building.

The Ocean Mist fortified its foundation this spring. The owner is contesting a new wall planned for beside the building.

Ocean Mist. This bar and nightclub is ground zero for the climate-change and property-rights policy struggle in Rhode Island. The structure sits between the ocean and a wall of stone and sod. At high tide, water runs underneath the wood pilings that support the building.

Owner Kevin Finnegan recently lost a legal battle to prevent construction of a sheet-pile wall that, if built, will sit next to his building. The town intends to install the wall in October to protect a road that provides access to several businesses and residences in the beach community. Finnegan believes the wall will deflect incoming waves toward his building. This spring he installed wooden planks under Ocean Mist to reinforce its foundation.

When completed, most of the wall will be buried, with a 3-foot cement cap above ground. The barrier will resemble the cement wall at Narragansett Beach.

The proposed 202-foot sheet-pile wall is itself a controversy. The CRMC approved construction in 2012 after the board reversed an original decision to deny it. The wall is expected to exacerbate erosion along exposed portions of the beach, much like an existing manmade stone wall, called a revetment, that lies to the west of Ocean Mist. The project underscores the debate between trying to protect property and letting nature run its course.

Regardless of what’s built to prevent further damage, the shoreline is likely to move another 300 feet inland by the end of the century, according to Grover Fugate, CRMC's executive director. “Nothing is going to work in the long run, but some of (the fixes) are going to buy you more time," he said.