Ocean State Adopts New Building Plan to Address Rising Waters

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The Coastal Resources Management Council's latest coastal planning guide, the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) was recently approved.

The document's biggest influence is to Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) construction permits needed for building along the shore within Rhode Island’s 21 coastal communities. As a climate-change preparedness tool it also offers guidance for state and municipal planners by looking ahead at the impacts of coastal storms, erosion, and sea-level rise.

“Adapting to these ongoing and future conditions will ensure Rhode Island is building resilient communities, as well as a strong coastal economy and environment,” according to the document.

The Beach SAMP targets the areas most vulnerable to climate change: beaches, historic waterfronts, bluffs, peninsulas, and salt marshes. It does this through a five-step permitting process that “ensures that CRMC approved projects are designed and built with the applicant’s acknowledgement of the risks of building in coastal hazard areas.”

Unlike the acclaimed Ocean SAMP that facilitated Rhode Island's offshore wind industry by establishing rules and regulations for open-water development and fishing, the Beach SAMP has no enforceable regulations. It offers suggestions for undertaking the mounting impacts of global warming and requires some developers to include an analysis of climate change impacts in their applications to build in coastal zones.

“This is set up as a guidance document right now. So it doesn't have the full force of regulations,” said Grover Fugate, CRMC's executive director.

In the coming months, CRMC will announce specific changes to its permitting applications that will include requiring certain applicants to include assumptions about the future impacts of climate change on their projects. The analysis is informational only and will not result in the approval or denial of an application.

The Beach SAMP targets the areas projected to be overrun by a 100-year storm plus 7 feet of sea-level rise, as projected by the STORMTOOLS mapping program. The coastal hazard application analysis will include flooding and erosion rates in construction areas and connecting roads. It requires reviews of public access, wastewater, stormwater, depth to water table, saltwater intrusion, and wind damage.

Larger projects and new housing developments of six or more buildings must examine the possibility of salt-marsh migration, which occurs when marshes move inland as sea levels rise.

Applicants will be asked to consider relocating, elevating or fortifying projects prior to construction or in the future to avoid or lessen the risks as coastal hazards increase due to the changing climate.

The process is designed to “protect public health, safety, and welfare; minimize damage and losses to nearby infrastructure and properties; and reduce overall impacts to coastal resources,” according to the document.

One of goals of the new five-step permitting process is to determine how much risk the project applicant is taking on and if insurance is required to mitigate the risk through the National Flood Insurance Program.

There was no public comment at a June 12 hearing for the final chapters of the Beach SAMP. Written comments were submitted by Save The Bay and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). CLF praised CRMC for its work on the project and for engaging stakeholders.

The Beach SAMP was written by CRMC and the University of Rhode Island. The project began shortly before Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It received much of its $11 million cost through federal hurricane relief money.

Projections for sea-level rise were revised upwards three times while the Beach SAMP was being written. The latest projections assume between 7 and 9 feet of sea-level rise by 2100 and 1-3 feet by 2035, as projected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The document includes other scientific findings and has a chapter devoted to current and future impact of climate change. Between 52 percent and 87 percent of existing marshland will be lost with 3-5 feet of sea-level rise. Hurricanes, tropical storms, and floods are expected increase and intensify.