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Sunday, March 27, 2022

Sea level rise and storms pose greatest risk to Charlestown

UPDATED: But many Charlestown shoreline owners don’t give a crap

By Will Collette

Joanna Detz/ecoRI News
WPRI’s Target 12 investigative team just released a devastating report that makes many of Charlestown’s richest people look pretty stupid.

According to the First Street Foundation that specializes in monitoring flood risk, Charlestown has the greatest proportion of properties at risk of flooding in Rhode Island.

Even though there is federal financial support available to raise their homes up and (hopefully) above storm surge, only 38% of eligible homeowners have taken the initial step, the design phase. That’s 17 of a total of 45 eligible properties. Under the federal program, the feds will pay 65% of the cost of raising a house above the danger level.

As Superstorm Sandy proved in 2012, a major storm will cause catastrophic damage. Such storms will become more frequent, plus sea level will continue to rise.

This GIF was created by WPRI for its story on Charlestown's lack of participation in the federal program to storm proof homes. It shows the level of inundation from a 100-year flood, of the type we get more frequently these days.

Channel 12 estimated that, depending on the size of the house, the cost share under the federal program to the homeowner would be between $45,000 and $89,000.

Since so many of these properties are valued at $1 million or more, sometimes a lot more, and there are insurance savings to be had, the lack of participation is baffling.

Our Zoning Officer Joe Warner told Channel 12 “It’s certainly intriguing that we didn’t have more interest because that’s a pretty big percentage [65%] to be paid for.”

Charlestown is not alone when it comes to apathy to flooding from climate change, especially among the wealthy. A recent Georgia State University study of coastal home buying in Florida showed there was almost no effect on home buying in flood-threatened areas even though sellers are required to disclose the risk.

Part of the problem is that mortgage lenders and many appraisers were not including flood damage potential in their determinations of home value even though flood insurance sellers were. But wealthy buyers who pay cash aren’t required to purchase flood insurance.

They may be sanguine about storm damage, thinking they can afford to simply repair or rebuild. Maybe they can do that in Florida but under Rhode Island CRMC rules, if a coastal property suffers 50% or more damage from a storm, the property may not be rebuilt.

The WPRI report quotes CRMC spokesperson Laura Dwyer who cites this CRMC regulation:

“…all residential and non-water dependent recreational, commercial, and industrial structures on undeveloped barriers physically destroyed fifty percent (50%) or more by storm induced flooding, wave or wind damage may not be reconstructed regardless of the insurance coverage carried.

Joe Warner, for his part, has done everything he can to help coastal homeowners. He’s taken courses, won certifications and taken measures to secure the highest rating from FEMA for Charlestown’s emergency preparedness. Joe’s efforts have substantially cut the insurance cost for these properties.

But property owners’ failure to elevate their structures might affect that rating as the climate crisis worsens.

Joe also noted that the federal assistance program only covers a small fraction of endangered properties:

“[The Army Corps of Engineers] only came up with 45 properties and we have hundreds, if not thousands that are potentially in harm’s way.”

If anyone in town would know this, it’s Joe. But his estimate has some back up from the First Street Foundation who say:

“There are 500 properties in Charlestown that have a greater than a 26% of being severely affected by flooding over the next 30 years. This represents 23% of all properties in the city.”

There is a strong political dimension to this problem. The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) counts on wealthy shoreline residents as its core support for campaign funding. Those shoreline properties are also a big part of Charlestown’s tax base.

For those reasons, the CCA and the town have a pretty strong self-interest to keep those properties from being blown and washed away in the next inevitable major storm.

A NASA satellite, Sentinel 6, is constantly measuring sea levels, the newest
of several satellites providing critical data about the climate crisis. 
This animation shows the radar pulse from the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich
satellite’s altimeter bouncing off the sea surface in order to measure the
height of the ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
But fear not, we have a new Charlestown Climate Resiliency Commission. It has had at least one meeting and has a link to draft minutes posted on the town website.
But WARNING: do not click on that link – when I did, my anti-virus software immediately signaled the link is contaminated with a serious virus. Town Hall says the link is clean. It could have been a false alarm from my Afee software. - WC

Hopefully, they’ll get that fixed quickly.

This Commission has the following mission:

Study and analyze issues and impacts of climate change and global warming, development of strategies, policies and plans for mitigation of and adaptation to impacts from climate change and global warming.

There are a veritable legion of scientists and experts already studying the effects of the climate crisis on the New England coastline and we already know what is most likely going to happen to Charlestown.

For example, there is a newly released National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report. Frank Carini at EcoRI writes about this report HERE.

This Commission may have some talented people on it, but I hope they are smart enough not to waste time duplicating the efforts of federal, state, university, non-profit and businesses who have already done the science.

Illegal in Charlestown
I believe this Commission will most likely turn its attention to what it will do about the likely damage increased bad weather and sea level rise will do to people and property.

I hope this Commission will also recommend that Charlestown puts more effort into reducing carbon emissions and increasing the use of green energy. Better late than never.

New wind wall: Illegal in Charlestown
Charlestown still has an onerous ordinance passed in 2011 that makes small residential wind turbines impossible to get. Indeed, not one single residential wind turbine permit has been issued in the eleven years since the ordinance was passed. That must change.

Charlestown should restart its Solarize Charlestown program and also launch other group-buying efforts to help property owners make the switch to green energy. Solarize Charlestown was the only town effort to promote the switch to green energy but it only lasted a few months in 2017 and less than 40 households participated (mine was one of them – best decision we made).

We had these panels installed under Solarize Charlestown in Nov. 2017.
Since then, they have saved us thousands in lower electric bills
and rebate checks from National Grid, (Photo by Will Collette)
The town should also offer property tax credits for green energy installations and for investments in resilience (e.g. hurricane proof windows, shutters and doors, metal roofs).

These measures are in line with global and national efforts to try to slow down the climate crisis but it’s not going to stop the storms.

I have raised concerns in the past that perhaps one of the driving forces behind the Budget Commission and CCA effort to raise taxes so we can build up a huge budget surplus to use as a bail-out fund for Charlestown’s beach property owners.

Chair of Charlestown Budget Commission, explaining $3 million "oopsie"
The CCA Council majority just passed a “plan” for the town’s unassigned fund balance (a.k.a. surplus) that anticipates building up this surplus to $10 million from its current $5 million and change. This is WAY above the normal recommended level.

As we all discovered in January, the Charlestown Budget Commission accidentally spent $3 million it thought it had in unassigned surplus funds because of an “oopsie” that assigned those $3 million to another purpose.

I am concerned the CCA and the Budget Commission will use the new Climate Resiliency Commission to provide political cover so they can raise taxes in the budget due to go into effect July 1 (assuming voter approval) to rebuild the surplus money pool.

What the Climate Resiliency Commission can actually do to guide Charlestown through the climate crisis remains to be seen though I do wish them luck.