A ‘Grand Vision for Matunuck’ Can’t Be Ignored

By JAMES BEDELL

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Our seaside village of Matunuck is clearly a place feeling the pressure of change. Some might say under the threat of extinction. It’s hard to see the way forward, to see the vision of the Matunuck that will be, through the cloud of uncertainty, competing viewpoints and compelling emotions.

Though we can’t see everything clearly, it’s safe to say that the shorefront owners in the area desperately want things to stay the way they “were.” The residents want their views; the commercial interests want their livelihoods to stay intact. It’s hard to make a point which goes against their dream of a return of wide beaches in front of their properties protecting them from the sea’s energy.

In contrast the geologists evaluate how the Matunuck shore is changing using an empirical lens. They look at the situation with the cloud piercing radar of centuries of data and they frame a bleak scenario. These specialists know that sea level has been rising in the post-glacial era for thousands of years and will continue to do so. Current, valid science also informs us that global warming is real and will accelerate that rise in the future. It’s a fact that when the sea rises, the location of the land/sea boundary will shift inland, and property for which people currently hold deeds will cease to exist.

Left to natural forces alone, the beach will recreate itself further upland, where bedrooms and busy kitchens now stand.

The proposed steel-sheet curtain wall along the roadside in the current action plan will, in a relatively short time and despite temporary experimental sand-trapping efforts, become the edge of the sea. The road will be the defensible shorefront, and the public will have passage along the shore. People will sit on that wall with the water lapping at their feet, and the pizza joint across the street may well become a “Turtle Soup West” — the successful restaurant in Narragansett across the street from the sea — with a fine view of the water.

As tragic and sad as that will be for some, when the land yields to the rising sea it is literally true that “one man’s loss is another man’s gain.” The present shorefront property owners look out across a breathtaking blue horizon vista, under which is a seabed littered with fireplaces, stoop stones and other remains of former waterfront properties. But there is another, wider perspective from which to look at the Matunuck situation.

Widen out your gaze to include Misquamicutt Beach, where Superstorm Sandy threw the entire beach across the parking lot onto Atlantic Avenue in order to adjust to the change in sea level.  Westerly decided to (with federal help!) make the investment to basically pick it up and put it back in front of the commercial shore properties. Similarly, look at Narragansett, which (again with federal help!) repaired the famous wall, the street, the sidewalks and the beach after taking a hit from Sandy.

Both Westerly and Narragansett did this because each town is supported by a thriving tourism industry, and it was worth committing the resources to keep their economic engines running.

Matunuck is also a treasure by the sea. In a way Matunuck is more advantageously situated than either Narragansett or Misquamicutt. It’s imbedded in a roughly 20-mile-long, uninterrupted, south-facing white, sandy beach. As is said, “Location, location, location” are the three major determinants of real-estate value.

So picture this possible futurescape for the Matunuck shore, starting at the town beach on the west and extending to Deep Hole, maybe even as far as the memorial stairs going down to East Matunuck State Beach and Jerusalem, on the east:

A permanent, sufficiently robust sea wall situated just seaward of the current shore front buildings.

The structure would be wide enough to allow both the public to exercise their constitutional rights to pass along the land bordering the sea, and provide the room for maintenance and repair equipment to move along the top when needed.

It might be configured so that patrons on the decks of the Ocean Mist, Tara’s and the residential properties could look out to the horizon over the heads of passersby.

The commercial interests get to entice people to leave some of their vacation money in the business’s cash registers and the shorefront residents get to walk from their decks along a beautiful seaside promenade to Jerusalem or Watch Hill if they feel like taking a stroll.

If this could be accomplished, Matunuck would become a third commercial leg supporting a state coastal strategy to make the most of our fabulous shoreline. We would pay for the maintenance required to support these three “anchors of tourism” — Misquamicutt, Narragansett and Matunuck.

Then we hold hardened shore protection to only those three “armored” regional commercial anchors.  The rest of the south shore is allowed to slowly yield to sea-level rise and retreat landward. This would leave the preponderance of the shoreline a natural beach for all to enjoy, because after all, “it’s the beaches, stupid!”

Our beaches are what makes Rhode Island the summer destination for much of New England and beyond. Though the shops and taverns are visited and enjoyed by the tourists, the tourists didn’t come to shop. They came to go to the beaches, and the beaches are what allow the shops, restaurants and other commercial ventures to prosper. Our tourism industry is a gift bestowed on us by Rhode Island's geologic history.

I don’t know if anyone else recalls that this is not the first time this “Grand Vision for Matunuck” has come before the public. At one of the first open meetings regarding this issue, the first speaker from Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) included this very design as one of the proposals to be considered as a possible future for Matunuck. The energized crowd in attendance at that early point in the discussion steamrolled right over this proposal in its rush to discuss ways to try to bring back the sandy beach of yesteryears in front of their properties. The stakeholders weren’t ready at that time to deal with the realities of the situation ... unfortunately, some are still not ready.

Ready or not, it behooves us to respect one of the great truisms of nature: “The only thing which never changes is that everything changes.” The configuration of the shoreline in Matunuck is changing and we have to plan for, and deal with, the Matunuck of the future and stop wishing for the return of the past. The plan on the table is a viable design to take action in a forward direction, albeit with some questions remaining.

The present proposal, with the line of defense being a sea wall along the roadside, will create a lovely seaside walkway and effect protection for the critical municipal infrastructure that lies underneath the pavement. Is that enough? Does that solution leave enough of Matunuck intact to be the desirable seaside village we have all come to love and cherish? Maybe it does. Or is it true that Ocean Mist and Tara’s, along with the cottages presently on the water’s edge, are critical threads in the fabric of Matunuck, and that the whole character of the place would unravel without them? Maybe it would.

My concluding thought is that having a vision to share is the easy part. I do not have a crystal ball and I do not know the intricacies of all the permissions and regulations with which this vision would have to deal.

What I do know is that profound change is coming and the community has to deal with it. Though it would be a tough task, I think a positive outcome is possible if enough clear thinking, balanced rational reasoning and shared effort can be brought to bear on the problem.

It's up to all of us to take another few words of wisdom to heart. “Lead, follow or get out of the way,” because the evolution of Matunuck-by-the-Sea is at hand.

Wakefield, R.I., resident James Bedell is a member of the Rhode Island Shore Access Coalition.