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Sunday, April 14, 2013

What to do about coastline properties?

Big decisions for Charlestown and the rest of the shoreline towns
By Will Collette

On Earth Day, later this month, Charlestown Town Council boss Tom Gentz (CCA) is calling on Charlestown residents to head down to the beach to clean up the properties that suffered storm damage. 

This may include some free labor for our non-resident waterfront property owners who have been slow to do their own clean-up. This is one of the ways that our wonderful seaside geography creates a bittersweet experience for us all.

Rhode Island’s shoreline has been changed a lot by the increasing number of harsh coastal storms that have wracked the region. 

Climate scientists tell us it’s only going to get worse. Planners are faced with the challenge of what to do to prepare our communities for this future.

Whatever we decide to do, it will have an impact on our tax base, the local economy and the very nature of our community.


Grover Fugate, director of the RI Coastal Resource Management Council says, “People in their lifetime… may see two feet of sea level rise. That could transform the shoreline during that period of time, especially coupled with more storm events… that are becoming more frequent.”

Fugate also noted that neither Sandy nor Hurricane Irene directly hit the Rhode Island coastline yet caused tremendous damage. It is inevitable that we will take a direct hit that will make the damage from Sandy and Irene seem minor.


The Providence Sunday Journal (March 24, paywall, no link) ran a feature story on Connecticut resident Arthur Frattini whose Charlestown Beach cottage was knocked on its side on October 30 by Hurricane Sandy. He bought the house 27 years ago knowing that it was vulnerable to harsh weather.

Frattini paid to have the house set upright and back a few feet in a temporary location. According to the ProJo, “He [Frattini] had one goal in mind: Not letting anyone tell him he couldn't live there anymore.”

Like so many other coastal communities, we have had a lot of beachfront development. While this certainly adds a lot of tax revenue, it also adds costs when you consider the amount of added infrastructure the town must maintain to accommodate the crush of part-time residents and beach goers who flood the town during the summer. 

It strains our environment, stresses our social fabric and creates the peculiar political dynamic we see here where pandering to wealthy part-time residents has become the raison d'ĂȘtre for the CCA, Charlestown’s dominant political party.

So the storms come and destroy properties along the water and we all assume they will rebuild. After all, that’s what insurance is for, and besides, we need their tax revenue. Right?

But at what point does this become unsustainable?

Government regulations now require property owners who suffer 50% or more structural loss to rebuild based on new storm-resistant building codes. That means putting the house on stilts and strengthening other vulnerable parts of the house, such as windows, roofs, etc. The ProJo article detailed the extraordinary efforts Frattini made to salvage the scattered bits of his house so he could argue he did not suffer a 50% loss.

Many Charlestown properties damaged by Sandy lost their septic systems – in some instances, storm surge uncovered those systems and left the septic tanks above ground, more or less “high and dry.” Homeowners will have to comply with existing waste disposal rules to replace them. In some cases, and Frattini is a case in point, he will need an above ground holding tank since digging a new septic field is no longer possible.

Taxpayer-subsidized federal flood insurance rates are going up, as well as conventional property insurance, for people who live in vulnerable areas. This is hardly the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last.

Hurricane shutters for windows and doors
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, we were among thousands of property owners living within two miles of the Atlantic coast to receive insurance cancellation notices. We were told that due to monumental costs from the hurricanes of 2005, and future risk, we would not be able to get our insurance re-instated unless we invested in armoring our home with hurricane-proof window and door coverings.

We bit the bullet and spent the money, figuring that it was better to do that than to go into the risk pool for uninsurable homeowners where the prices are high and the coverage is minimal. Plus, the added safety and property protection has its own value. However, as AARP put it, post-Katrina insurance coverage cost a lot more and covered a lot less.

Waterfront property owners who armored their homes and jacked them up on 20 foot high stilts suffered very little damage this past season, when unprotected properties were washed away or trashed. Frattini told the ProJo that insurance companies were also cutting the rates for property owners who enhance their storm protection.

At a certain point, though, such adaptations become futile. The big and medium sized storms are causing serious coastal erosion. In Matunuck, some homes won’t be rebuilt simply because the ground where they stood is gone.

The most recent, revised version of Charlestown's flood plain map
While storm erosion gouges out beachfronts, sea levels are rising as climate change shrinks our polar ice caps. State law obligates all Rhode Island cities and towns, including Charlestown, to factor in these effects when they produce new Comprehensive Plans.

At the same time, the state's Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) has launched a new program to craft a Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) that is on a three to four year track

Another step Charlestown could take is to participate in FEMA’s Community Rating Program. This program involves a commitment by a town to using best practices to prepare for severe storms. It rewards communities by granting flood insurance discounts to homeowners of anywhere from 5% to 45% depending on the municipality’s level of commitment. For unknown reasons, Charlestown does not participate.

In many respects, Charlestown’s policy toward shoreline residents is rendered incoherent by conflicting values. We like the tax revenue shoreline properties generate and the CCA Party counts on the campaign donations of those property owners to stay alive. 

Yet, the CCA Party is generally anti-development, although that is mostly for the benefit of those whose homes have already been built. There are some people who would like to see the shoreline get uncluttered with more of it converted into public and private open space.

Boston Harbor in the future. Click here to see some extraordinary
 renderings of what several US cities (e.g. Boston, New York, 
Washington DC) will look like after a 25 foot rise in sea level.
Plus. Charlestown’s actual policies have been generally in opposition to green energy, one of the few long-term approaches with a chance of slowing climate change, despite the CCA Party’s claims that they are true blue environmentalists.

I am sympathetic to the ire of my libertarian friends who rankle at the idea of taxpayers subsidizing housing that is built in high risk areas. 

We’re not as bad as some parts of Florida where homes have been built and wrecked and then rebuilt again and again through the generosity of taxpayers. 

But if the predicted increase in intense Atlantic storms does occur, we might see that happen here.

The federal government is in the process of shifting costs for federal flood insurance away from taxpayers and onto the policy holders.

This dilemma is plaguing Atlantic coast communities – weighing the costs and consequences of rebuilding against the heavy hit to the municipal tax base if storm-wrecked properties are not rebuilt. Westerly has already made the decision to rebuild Misquamicut, regardless of the cost and consequences, and Charlestown’s beach restoration continues apace.

For now, we plan to see if we can play King Canute and hold back the tide.