By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — To cheers from residents, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) approved a seawall to protect a road and a popular waterfront tavern in South Kingstown's Matunuck Beach community.
In a packed lecture hall June 14 on the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus, the CRMC, which regulates coastal development in Rhode Island, voted 6-2 in favor of a proposal to rebuild what remains of a tattered rock wall next to the Ocean Mist tavern.
The wall was last repaired in 1983, when it had 80 feet of beach between it and the ocean. The beach has since disappeared due to coastal erosion — only a small strip of sand and stone sit behind the scattered rocks. The new stonewall will be 530 feet long and 14 feet high. Although CRMC typically opposes new hardened seawalls, the structure received a much smoother path to approval because it was classified as a maintenance project.
Supporters of the new wall argued that a bigger structure is needed to preserve the seaside charm and character of the summer community.
Steve Smith, front man for the legendary Rhode Island band Steve Smith and the Nakeds, spent his summers at nearby Roy Carpenter's Beach. He spoke on behalf of musicians who have performed at the Ocean Mist over the decades.
“This is a worldwide destination and it’s part of Rhode Island,” Smith said. “And it would be a travesty if we lose this area.”
In 2012, CRMC approved construction of a 200-foot-long sheet-pile and concrete wall to protect Matunuck Beach Road from erosion. The wall, however, hasn't been built, as many residents came to believe that the structure would damage the buildings outside of the barrier, such as Ocean Mist.
South Kingstown resident Wendy Cafferty Lucas said the sheet-pile wall would destroy Ocean Mist and “kill the magic of Matunuck.”
“Save our happy place of Matunuck, as we all know life is much too short to not save the beauty around us,” she said.
Save The Bay and the Rhode Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation testified against the new project. Save The Bay's Kendra Beaver noted that CRMC staff acknowledged that a rebuilt wall has the potential to damage the Ocean Mist by deflecting more waves toward it.
Brian Wagner of the Surfrider Foundation said other less environmentally damaging options should be considered before a hardened wall, which is prone to accelerate erosion at nearby beaches.
“Armoring is an outdated response to erosion that has been proven to have negative ramifications for decades,” he said.
Wagner noted that the existing wall is more than 50 percent destroyed and therefore requires a full, more stringent CRMC review.
Recognizing defeat, Wagner warned the CRMC board about future problems it will create in Matunuck and across Rhode Island by approving construction of coastal stonewalls.
“You are going to have much tougher decisions in the years to come when it comes to people asking you to wall out the ocean with respect to sea-level rise,” he said. “You simply cannot create a precedent ... where people feel obligated to armor the entire coast of Rhode Island.”
Ocean Mist owner Kevin Finnegan has managed the pub and music venue for more than 30 years. The Ocean Mist itself is more than 60 years old. Finnegan will oversee the project with the town of South Kingstown, but will finance the $2 million cost himself.
After the recent hearing, Finnegan said he’s not worried that a storm will wipe out his investment. “It’s been there for 60 years," he said. "Even up until (Hurricane) Sandy it’s done its job. Just like a restored car, it’s going to be better.”
Finnegan said the project will improve public access to the shoreline. That access, however, will likely be limited if Finnegan makes good on other projects. Ocean Mist sits on an illegal wood wall that must be rebuilt to comply with CRMC regulations. Preliminary plans have been filed with CRMC to temporarily move Ocean Mist across the street while a new wall and foundation is built and stilts are installed to raise the height of the building. That project and related work also require CRMC approval.