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Monday, November 18, 2019

Building a wall in South Kingstown to hold back the tide

By Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News staff

Image result for matunuck sea wall
RI Sea Grant - URI photo


Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown continues to be a test case for climate crisis adaptation.


In 2012, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) made a controversial decision to approve a 202-foot-long sheet-metal wall for protecting a portion of the vulnerable shoreline road. 

After weeks of contentious hearings, the coastal zoning agency reversed its own decision to approve the manmade barrier. Opponents argued that the structure would cause more environmental harm along the rapidly retreating beach, while setting a precedent for further manmade hardening of Rhode Island’s coast. 


Ecosystems, they argued, should be managed with natural materials or allowed unhindered movement, especially as flooding and storms intensify.


As it did in 2012, CRMC agreed on Nov. 12 with South Kingstown’s reasoning that protecting the road is necessary to maintain the only thoroughfare to an isolated neighborhood of 240 homes and handful of businesses.

The first seawall, completed in 2018, set in motion a multiphase plan to protect the road and waterfront buildings. Phase 2, approved Nov. 12, extends the sheet-metal wall 350 feet. 

A third phase, approved by CRMC in 2016, allows the owner of the Ocean Mist tavern, Kevin Finnegan, to build a 530-foot-long, 14-foot-high protective barrier in front of his waterfront business. Rather than use metal or stone, the new wall will be made of giant sand-filled plastic bags.


The project essentially moves an illegal seawall behind the Ocean Mist to the front of the tavern, where the beach has eroded significantly and water now flows under an elevated deck.

The space between the front of the deck and the road will be filled, moving the manmade shoreline further into the water. The project has been on hold while the town negotiates a sale of the waterfront area to Finnegan.


Save The Bay testified against extending the sheet-metal wall, writing in a letter that “hardening the shoreline is not a viable response to the impacts of climate change.” 


The initial wall is making erosion worse by increasing wave energy, and reduces public access to the waterfront, according to the Providence-based organization.

The environmental advocacy and education group noted that the roadway hardening is a patchwork and “a shortsighted and ineffective response to the daunting impacts of sea level rise, coastal erosion and increasing storm intensity.”

Save The Bay called for a more deliberate plan to address the problem that should include “moving away from the shoreline.”

Approving Phase 2 also goes against CRMC’s management practices policies and its Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan.

The Matunuck Beach Trailer Association also objected, writing in a letter that the seawall will worsen flooding behind the wall and speed up erosion along part of the shoreline owned by the mobile home community, which is located across the street from the wall. Its members are concerned that the wall will also restrict access to the shoreline.

South Kingstown’s assistant solicitor, Andrew Teitz, noted that the project isn’t intended to hold back hurricanes and answer the climate crisis. 

The wall, he said, is expected to be overtopped by waves during major storms and the road will flood and become covered with sand and rocks. 


Rather, he said, the project is a 25-year fix to preserve the buried water main and protect the foundation of the road so that it can be cleared and reopened after storms.


“We’re trying to protect public infrastructure,” Teitz said.

Engineers testified that there is no room to relocate the road. South Kingstown Police Capt. Mark Healey testified that the road is necessary for first responders to reach the neighborhood.

The CRMC board approved the project, 7-0. Board member Jerry Sahagian abstained from the vote. Sahagian was angered that a gate allowing public access to the beach had been locked despite promises by the town years ago that it would be open.

The sheet-pile wall will be buried mostly below ground. It will stand 4 feet about ground, with a concrete cap and a stone wall at its base. There will be a 20-foot-wide gap in the wall to allow flood waters to return to open waters in Block Island Sound.