Agencies collaborate on shoreline plans

Damage done by Sandy shook things up
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 8:00pm
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Concerned citizens, public officials and representatives from many Block Island boards and commissions gathered at the Town Hall on Thursday, Oct. 22 for what was expected to be a session with the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) on the Corn Neck Road revetment. However, that didn’t end up being the purpose of the meeting.

The agenda was for a Municipal Work Session on Adaptation Planning for Coastal Hazards conducted by representatives of Sea Grant Rhode Island and the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island, as well as the CRMC. All of these agencies, along with a few others, have collaborated in the creation of a Shoreline Change Special Management Plan — Beach SAMP. 

Two years ago, representatives from Beach SAMP visited Block Island unveiling maps showing projections of what Block Island could look like with one, three, and five-foot rises in ocean levels. These maps showed simply what Block Island might experience if the ocean filled up like a “bath tub.” 

Thursday’s meeting took things a step further — how to use that information to plan strategies for adaptation and resiliency and how to comply with new state requirements concerning the Comprehensive Plan and Hazard Mitigation plans, which will need to incorporate natural hazards and climate change.

Also introduced was a new tool for planners and property owners, called Storm Tools. This interactive tool, which can be found on www.beachsamp.org, allows people to enter their addresses to access an aerial photo of their property that is overlaid with bands depicting where flooding might occur under the one-, three-, and five-foot sea level rise scenarios. Even though Block Island does not have regular street addresses, the system does work using fire numbers. (Just enter your fire number as if it were a street number.)

Teresa Crean from Sea Grant RI opened the meeting, telling the audience that this was the second of six municipal work sessions to be conducted in coastal communities. The first was in Narragansett. The effort is being funded by a Community Development Block Grant for Hurricane Sandy Disaster Recovery. 

It’s all a work in progress according to Crean, as Beach SAMP works to incorporate storm surges into its maps. “Assessment and scoping of vulnerable assets” was tantamount, she said. “Where we are today is to take [this information] to drill down with each of our six coastal communities.”

Michelle Carnevale of the URI Coastal Resources Center added: “The intent today is to be action-oriented – to try to craft adaptation strategies for Block Island.”

Next up was Grover Fugate, Executive Director of the CRMC. He said that the CRMC had been looking at climate change for over a decade, trying to take a “longer range look.” At first there was little interest, but Sandy changed all that, he told the group. The agency is now looking not only at sea level rise, but the effects of storm surges and erosion, and developing “tools” to help municipalities adapt and plan for change.

“Mitigation is very important,” said Fugate. While planning occurs on both the federal and individual state levels, Fugate said that the states were ahead of the federal government in planning, and Rhode Island was one of the most proactive. “RI is out in front on this one,” he said.

Fugate said it was important not to just look at the brunt of the largest storms, but at the “recurrence level of storms,” which is higher with the smaller “25 year storms.” Citing Sandy, “Westerly caught the brunt, with a five-foot surge.”

These surges, combined with sea level rise, extend the flood plains, said Fugate. “I hate to say it…we now have a seven-foot sea level rise” scenario. 

The maps also try to take into account where salt marshes may migrate. “We’re losing salt marshes at a rate that’s just alarming,” said Fugate. One method that is being tried is to raise the level of the marshes. “Standing water is killing the marshes.” 

Fugate also introduced a Coastal Property Guide for homeowners which can be downloaded from the Beach SAMP web-site. It includes building code changes, construction “retro-fits” and other ideas to make one’s home more resilient, some for a “small, modest investment” such as sealing roofs and decks.

“This is all trying to make us stronger,” said Fugate. 

Bryan Oakley was the next speaker in the day’s lineup. Oakley is a coastal geologist and assistant professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, and he has been actively involved in Beach SAMP’s work as it regards Block Island. His is an ongoing project, studying shoreline change utilizing aerial photography going back to 1952, and as of June 2013, overseeing monthly beach profiling at locations around Block Island. Oakley says that profiling the beach during the summer is a “challenge,” mainly because the temporary wooden stakes they use keep getting taken for firewood.

Incorporated into his data are beach measurements taken by David Vanko twice a year at Mansion Beach prior to 2013. Currently he is assisted in the beach profiling effort by several Block Island residents.

Oakley also studies erosion of the bluffs around the island. Unlike the “two sticks and a string method” used for beach profiling, measurements of the bluffs are done utilizing LIDAR radar. Why?  Because he values his life, he says. He has developed a database of photographs of the bluffs that is available for downloading at www1.easternct.edu/oakleyb/.

Of damage to the bluffs from Hurricane Sandy, Oakley told those assembled that Sandy changed the “toe” (bottom) of the bluffs, but not the tops. 

Oakley put up a slide with a graphic of the bluff profile of Spring House Pond, which the Block Island Land Trust has determined is in danger of spilling out into the Atlantic. Later in the meeting, when asked what he would do about the pond, he suggested, as a safety measure, draining it down to half its current level in order to relieve the pressure on the outer bank.

Next was an update on changes in state requirements that stipulate incorporating climate change into local comprehensive and hazard mitigation plans. The latter must be updated every five years. There are four different requirements, including identifying “priority natural hazards that are likely to impact the municipality.” Identifying areas that are likely to flood under one, three and five-foot sea level rise scenarios is also required.

New Shoreham Town Planner Alison Ring said that the town is in the middle of a Comp Plan update and sections have already been sent to the state for review. She said that climate change was being addressed throughout the document. As for the hazard mitigation plan: “We’re working on it,” said Ring.

Crean asked the community about concerns regarding Corn Neck Road, and there were many. 

Ned Phillips, Jr., Chair of the Block Island Conservation Commission, shared that snow fencing had been put up at nine points along the eastern shore in order to alleviate damage to the dunes from Sandy. “They’re all basically filling in,” said Phillips, but there was a further need to “stop kids from going on the dunes,” and they were out of money for additional snow fencing. He was particularly concerned about Scotch Beach, where the surge from Sandy had sent tons of sand into the parking lot. “How could we reconfigure that entry… so we could create access and create a buffer? Or are we sticking our finger in the dike?”

Oakley responded: “That path is a surge path.” He suggested raising the parking area, and reconfiguring the access paths so they wouldn’t be perpendicular to the beach, but angled instead.

Carl Kaufmann, who has been a longstanding member of the Committee for the Great Salt Pond (and is also a member of the Harbors Committee), was most concerned about a big storm surge coming across Corn Neck Road and inundating the Great Salt Pond. The pond, he said, is “the largest economic driver of the community.”

Oakley said there was a difference between the opening of a “surge channel” and a “full blown breach” of the pond. He didn’t think it would be a permanent breach.

“To the inland side… one of the lucky things about Sandy, we only had one to 1.5 inches of rain,” said resident Kevin Hoyt, also a member of the CGSP. “If there were six inches of rain, then we’re talking about flooding of the grocery store, the bank, gas station…We need to think about where all the water is going.  Storm water has nowhere to go.”

John Gasner pointed out that “We also have the breakwater and ferry.”

Others mentioned the sewer plant and sewer lines, the Historic District, and even the new substations at the Block Island Power Company that have yet to be built as areas of infrastructure that could be impacted by sea level rise and storm surge.

Regarding the substations, Fugate suggested making the buildings flood proof. He also said that the R.I. Department of Environmental Management was doing a separate study of sewer plants, but he didn’t know if it extended to sewer lines.

“You guys are really teed up,” said Carnevale. “You could be a model community.”

“While you think we’re ahead, we are the forgotten island,” when it comes to state funding for projects, said Sven Risom, a member of several town boards, and President of the CGSP. 

Town Manager Nancy Dodge echoed his concern, using the example of the proposed West Beach revetment, a project initially estimated at over $4 million, which is now being funded through grant money for only a fraction of that amount. 

Block Island’s infrastructure is not all islanders need to be mindful of. Carnevale put up a slide of Point Judith showing the area of the ferry terminal and the DEM parking lot where islanders leave cars. “This area will also be impacted,” she said, as it is a low-lying area. “A lot of these issues will cross town boundaries.”

Towards the end of the three-hour work shop, it was time to gauge the audience response to a series of questions. Clickers were handed out to all that would instantly record individual responses and then, almost just as instantly, turn the responses into a graph. 

For a few of the questions, the answers were the same and the respondents were asked to prioritize strategies, actions “to build upon,” and the three strategies that people would like more information about. The choices were such things as: identifying areas of risk, developing a database of properties and infrastructure that are exposed to sea level rise and flooding; strategies for assisting homeowners through zoning relief for height limits in order to allow for the elevation of certain homes, and creating incentives for homeowners to make adaptations voluntarily. In all there were 10 choices.

The most popular answer, however, was not one of the choices. Regarding the three strategies people wanted more information about, Risom said:  “What do we do?” He conjectured that if that was the eleventh item on the list, the “votes would go off the chart.”

“That’s a very good point,” said Fugate. 

Resident Kim Gaffett brought up Corn Neck Road, of which a portion had to be rebuilt after Sandy. “We keep rebuilding. Do we relocate?” 

Others noted that in the wake of the storm, disaster relief came in the form of “shovel ready” projects only.

Fugate suggested having an engineering design in place before the advent of the next big storm, and indicated that there might be funds available for that purpose, but he also felt that re-routing may be better than re-engineering. Corn Neck Road is a state road, and Fugate said that in terms of addressing the issue: “We’re having discussions with the DOT now.”

Crean said: “What we’re hearing today is it’s all of your infrastructure, not just transportation. To get things done, we need to start honing in.”

“We need to find projects we can circle around,” said Hoyt.

“That’s up to you guys. We’re providing the tools,” said Crean.