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Friday, September 7, 2018

New coastal development riding wave of approval in Rhode Island

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Image result for shoreline developmentShoreline development is on the rise in Rhode Island, as the 10-member board of the Coastal Resources Management Council continues to approve new projects.

The latest is an 84-room hotel and shopping center on Newport Harbor. The proposed Hammett’s Wharf Hotel would replace the parking lot and several adjacent parcels that serve as the venue for boat shows and other events at the Newport Yachting Center.

The 2-acre waterfront facility would have 166 parking spots, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant, 3,000 square feet of retail space, and 1,000 square feet of office space.

In July, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation approved a $3.5 million tax break for the hotel project. Construction is expected to begin in October.

At its meetings in June and July, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) board approved a new boating facility for Brown University, a 149-foot shoreline walk in Bristol, and a new 1,050-foot seawall along the Providence River.

Other large waterfront projects are expected, such as a new pier in Narragansett, another hotel in Newport, and a multi-use development in East Providence. 

This spike in Ocean State coastal building coincides with new CRMC guidelines that require coastal developments to include sea-level rise and other climate-change projections in their applications.


Although CRMC passed the climate-change requirements in June, the developer of the Hammett’s Wharf Hotel was still surprised. It took several meetings between CRMC and the developer to get the analysis explained and done, according to CRMC executive director Grover Fugate.

“They were completely caught off guard. They hadn't even thought about it,” he said.

The Newport waterfront is one of the most susceptible in the state to flooding from sea-level rise. Flaps were recently added to stormwater drains that flow into the harbor to prevent back flooding during high tides and rainstorms.

Under new CRMC Shoreline Special Area Management Plan regulations, waterfront projects that go before the agency must consider the impacts of sea-level rise during the design life of a project. Developers, however, aren't required to modify their projects to adapt.

Hammett’s Wharf Hotel used a 30-year design life, which according to the latest sea-level rise predictions could reach an upper level of more than 3 feet by 2050. Project developers considered about 1.5 feet by 2035 and offered to raise the base of the parking lot about a foot. 

Any higher would likely make the ceiling too low for the underground parking spaces. Instead, the owners offered to relocate vehicles to offsite parking as flooding worsens.

The owner of the property installed a stormwater treatment system on the site, preventing  previously untreated water from discharging into the harbor. But under current modeling both 1 foot and 3 feet of sea-level rise have the same impact on the site, flooding most of the footprint of the development.
Save The Bay objected to the project's request to fill in a boat ramp and thereby shrink the size of the tidal water area.

“Anytime we see an application with filling we take a really close look at it,” said Michael Jarbeau, Save The Bay's baykeeper

At an Aug. 28 hearing, the CRMC board unanimously approved the project without Save The Bay’s recommendation to protect the boat ramp.

Fugate pressed project engineer Samuel Bradner to place a landscaped bioretention area along the shoreline rather than on the border of the property. That idea was also not part of the board's approval.

The group Friends of the Waterfront didn't object to the project but wanted to ensure that the public pedestrian path was open until 5 p.m. during the winner rather than sunset, which can occur before 5 p.m. The developer promised to keep access open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. to coincide with the hours for the existing public harbor walk.

The Providence seawall project, inside the hurricane barrier, is part of an urban greenway that runs along the harbor and up the Seekonk River to Pawtucket. The project includes the repair of an electric substation, construction of a parking garage and a 172-unit apartment building, and a building renovation. 

The steel sheet-pile wall will have a concrete cap for public access and a vegetated strip between 17 and 30 feet wide. The walkway will connect with the new pedestrian bridge that spans the Providence River.

Despite portions of the project filling in 15-20 feet of the river, CRMC engineers said the project complies with the Metro Bay SAMP. The wall project was the first CRMC application to follow the new sea-level rise modeling rules. The analysis indicated that sea-level rise would increase about 2.3 feet by 2080, well below the 8-foot height of the new seawall.

Jarbeau likes the new sea-level rise analysis and hopes that it eventually is adopted as a required part of CRMC decisions rather than just a piece of information for developers. 

As he sees it, the data may help protect infilling of the bay, a natural resource that is shrinking because of development and rising because of climate change. So even walling off a relatively small waterway like a boat ramp sets a bad precedent, he said.

“Our biggest concern is to see the logic brought to other parts of the bay,” Jarbeau said.

Fugate said the new sea-level rise reporting is off to a promising start. Through public outreach, real-estate agents and their customers are using sea-level rise projection programs like STORMTOOLS in their buying considerations, especially in neighborhoods with roads that are susceptible to flooding.

“It’s starting to have an impact,” Fugate said. “If nothing else, it makes people more aware of the impact of sea-level rise in these areas.”