South Kingstown and Ocean Mist Push for New Seawall

Homes and businesses, such as Ocean Mist, along a stretch of street in South Kingstown, R.I., are caught between an encroaching sea and Matunuck Beach Road. (ecoRI News)

Homes and businesses, such as Ocean Mist, along a stretch of street in South Kingstown, R.I., are caught between an encroaching sea and Matunuck Beach Road. (ecoRI News)

By TIM FAUKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A throng of supporters of a proposed seawall intended to save a popular waterfront South Kingstown tavern left a recent public meeting deeply frustrated.

Many of the nearly 200 attendees hollered at the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) for not voting on a plan to install a fortified stone barrier that they claim would protect the Matunuck beach community and the Ocean Mist tavern.

The majority of the overflow crowd chanted, “Give us the wall” and “Make a decision” in the hearing room at the Department of Administration building during the April 26 meeting.

CRMC executive director Grover Fugate explains a new seawall proposal to council members. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

CRMC executive director Grover Fugate explains a new seawall proposal to council members. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

CRMC executive director Grover Fugate and CRMC chairwoman Anne Maxwell Livingston, however, repeatedly told the audience that the meeting was simply a review of a complicated proposal and not intended for public input or a vote by the 10-member council.

The project is unique because it's a joint application between the town of South Kingstown and Hang Ten LLC, the entity representing Kevin Finnegan, the owner of the storied Ocean Mist.

Fugate told the council that CRMC engineers couldn't endorse the proposal because it goes beyond the allowed maintenance of a smaller existing seawall and instead seeks to build a new and significantly larger and complex stone barrier. According to the application, the new wall would be 530-feet long and 14-feet tall. The old wall was last modified in 1983. At the time, 80 feet of beach sat between the wall and the water. Today, only a small beach area sits behind the loose-stone structure. CRMC doesn't support construction of new seawalls, as they are considered harmful to shoreline ecosystems.

The town and Finnegan, however, may nonetheless advance their application for the project, a process that make take months and even years if there are legal challenges, Fugate said. He also explained that CRMC suggested building a smaller stone structure that would likely gain approval from the CRMC board. A scaled-down proposal could advance within weeks, he said, if it meets the terms recommended by CRMC engineers.

The stretch of beach along the southern coast has been embroiled in debate for decades, as the town and commercial and residential property owners have struggled to protect the eroding beach and coastal structures. Several buildings now stand on stilts with water from Block Island Sound running beneath them at high tide.

In 2012, CRMC approved construction of a 200-foot-long sheet-metal and concrete wall to protect Matunuck Beach Road from erosion and moderate storms. The road is the only access to homes and businesses in the community. Although the project has received all of the necessary permits, construction hasn't started. Many supporters of the Ocean Mist don’t want the sheet-metal, or sheet-pile, wall installed, because it will built behind the Ocean Mist and increase the likelihood of damage to structures outside the barrier.

In 2014, CRMC denied an application by the town to build a new seawall along a strip of beach between the shoreline and Matunuck Beach Road.

Finnegan has also submitted an application to CRMC to raise the Ocean Mist 3 feet and install a cement foundation.

Fugate said the sheet-metal wall and a new stonewall may protect the road but won’t protect buildings behind the wall from the effects of a severe storm.

If the joint application for the new seawall moves forward a public hearing could be held soon, Livingston said. Save The Bay, the Surfrider Foundation and the Conservation Law Foundation oppose the proposal.

“As everyone knows, this matter has been kicking around for a long time and we hope we are moving toward a resolution,” Livingston said.