By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff
SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Matunuck Beach is disappearing. Coastal erosion of the beach has accelerated during the past decade to the point that town officials fear that erosion could compromise the integrity of Matunuck Beach Road, leaving some 240 homes without a public water supply and an adequate evacuation route in the event of a serious storm and consequent flooding.
At the April 10 meeting of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the governmental body charged with protecting Rhode Island’s 400 miles of shoreline, South Kingstown officials sought a special exemption from the CRMC to install a sheet-pile wall directly adjacent to Matunuck Beach Road to protect the road from the imminent effects of further erosion.
Testimony in support of the exemption was offered from town manager Steven Alfred, and designers and engineers of the proposed wall.
Alfred testified to the need for the wall to protect public safety. "Matunuck Beach Road serves 240 homes. A breach of this road would leave 660 people without water and fire safety services and also prevent the evacuation of those homes in an emergency," he said.
There is no other road or water service to those homes. Alfred also testified that the town would be content to limit the special exemption to a 202-foot stretch of the proposed 1,400-foot-long seawall. “We believe that the special exemption should be granted through the CRMC’s public infrastructure exception rule,” he said.
Alfred assured the council that the town has explored viable alternatives, such as moving the road and building new access roads, but determined that other options weren't practical or economically viable, mostly due to the need to destroy or move homes to build new roads. He also noted in his testimony that, in the nine months since the engineering study, 15-20 more feet of erosion had occurred.
Wall engineer and designer Rick St. Jean testified that the proposed wall itself wouldn't cause additional erosion due to it being erected behind existing seawalls, and that the proposed wall would only come into play if the existing wall failed. Under cross-examination by lawyers representing various home and business owners in the Matunuck area, he admitted that the wall is only a short-term solution, with an expected lifespan of 20-40 years, and would require maintenance by the town.
CRMC engineers expressed concern in their report to the council about increased surges on the landward side of the wall during storm and flood events and the strength of the wall during intense weather events such as hurricanes and back-to-back Nor’easters.
Sheet-pile walls are installed without excavation. The three-eighths to half-inch thick sheets of steel are driven directly into the soil with a piledriver. CRMC member Tony Affigne expressed concerns over the effects of the installation of the wall on the existing seawall and the possible disruption of softer soils that, in some spots, extend only three to six feet seaward of the proposed wall.
The fact that the beach isn’t owned by the town presents some difficulty concerning future erosion and infrastructure protections.
Legal representatives of home and business owners, and advocacy groups such as the Surfrider Foundation stressed the fact that this plan, and the testimony of Alfred and St. Jean, was geared almost exclusively to the protection of the road, and that the preservation of the beach and surrounding homes and businesses was largely ignored by the proposal.
Stephen Reid, legal counsel for the owners of the Ocean Mist restaurant, pointed to the lack of a return on the proposed wall, and said that his clients would bear the brunt of wave erosion when the wall is inevitably exposed.
Brian Wagner, representing the Rhode Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said, “Beach armoring has been refuted as effective beach management at every turn, and the town’s insistence on this wall shows just how antiquated their approach is. Alternatives were not adequately explored by the town due to unpalatability and political expedience.”
The town has refused free sand for beach renourishment on more than one occasion.
Jane Austin, senior policy analyst at Save The Bay, said, “Hardening shorelines encroaches on the public trust, decreases property values and increases erosion on adjacent beaches. These problems will only be magnified by sea level rise and climate change.”
Matunuck resident Robert Cavanaugh expressed support for the proposed wall, but seemed to be using the same language as opponents when he said that previous methods of preserving the beach and road were akin to “putting Band-Aids on a bleeding patient.”
Attorney for the MC Homeowner’s Association, Donald Packer, representing 288 homeowners in the Mary Carpenter's Beach neighborhood, voiced support for the special exemption and a further proposal to reclassify the beach in question as “manmade.”
Sean Coffey, representing several business and homeowners located directly on Matunuck beach, expressed his clients’ opposition to the proposal, saying, “It seems the town will protect the road at all costs, and they will continue to chase this erosion down the beach. Their concern should be to protect the natural infrastructure of the beach, and address not the road, but the true problem, which is beach erosion.”
The original application for the special exemption was filed last October. In the interim, CRMC staff reviewed and assessed the proposed plan. Its findings didn't support the town’s application for exemption, and based on the staff report and testimony and public comment offered at the meeting, the CRMC voted 7-2 against the exemption.