By DAVE FISHER and TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The wind seems to have shifted concerning the erosion problem at Matunuck Beach and the threat level to the only road servicing the small beach community.
After previously rejecting efforts by the town to protect Matunuck Beach Road from erosion through hard “armoring” measures and reclassification of the beach as “manmade," the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) voted 6-4 May 8 to approve the original application for a special exemption to CRMC regulations for a 202-foot-long stretch of Matunuck Beach directly next to the Ocean Mist. The council then voted 9-0, with one abstention, in favor of the town’s request to install a sheet-pile wall along the exempted section of Matunuck Beach Road to protect it from erosion.
A report (pdf) provided to the council by CRMC executive director Grover Fugate recommended a four-pronged approach to the problem at Matunuck and the greater issue of creating a long-term, statewide plan to assess and remedy future erosion problems on all of Rhode Island’s beaches and shorelines.
In his report, dated May 4, Fugate classified the sheet-pile wall as a "stop gap approach to shore-up the road at Matunuck."
Town manager, Steven Alfred maintained the position that the road is in “imminent peril” of destruction if a severe coastal storm or hurricane made landfall at Matunuck, and expressed concerns that the so-called “soft” solutions proposed by some of the stakeholders would take too long to implement.
His concerns were echoed in Fugate’s memo, where he wrote, “Even if the town were to agree on some of the alternatives suggested at the hearings and in the staff reports, there is an implementation lag of 18-36 months. The road is already in a compromised state and one good coastal storm could significantly damage it. ... There is clearly a public health and safety purpose to protecting, in the short term, this limited section of road until a more comprehensive look is taken and other alternatives seriously explored.”
The next day, one of the council’s most vocal opponents of the exemption, and the one abstention from the vote to allow the installation of the sheet-pile wall, Tony Affigne, said, “The sheet-pile wall will not protect the beach, and will not protect the beachfront properties. It will only protect the road and utility infrastructure. Damage to the road and water supply can be repaired; damage to the beach is irrevocable.”
Affigne also expressed concern that not enough information was available on the condition and stability of the existing concrete wall at the site, but noted that the headlands bluff had already washed away from the last 40 to 50 feet of the wall.
While the CRMC pulled a complete 180 on the issue of special exemptions and sheet-pile walls at Matunuck, most of the attorneys representing Matunuck businesses, residents and advocacy groups maintained their previous positions, either for or against the proposals, with one notable exception.
After opposing the measure, Jane Austin, policy analyst and lobbyist for Save The Bay, said the organization supports the project, which creates an experimental zone for "soft" manmade erosion control structures.
Save The Bay’s support may be jumping the gun a bit, according to Affigne. He cautioned that the "council was only voting on the installation of the wall. The other recommendations (in Fugate’s memo) are purely hypothetical.”
On May 4, a bill (pdf) was introduced to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture that directs CRMC to create a beach protection and re-nourishment plan for Matunuck. Several members of the Senate Committee referred to successful sand replenishment projects in other states such as South Carolina, where sand is pumped from open water back to beaches.
The bill was held for further study. Just after the May 9 Senate hearing, Austin said of the latest CRMC vote, “We were encouraged by the decision."