Looking ahead down the Neck

Sat, 04/29/2017 - 7:45am

There are no easy solutions, and there is no one solution to dealing with the impacts of a rising sea, and more and more intense storms that could wreak havoc on the island’s infrastructure, Block Island residents realized at a recent workshop hosted by the Planning Board.

The meeting was a kickoff event for vhb, the firm the town has hired to conduct a planning study for Corn Neck Road from Scotch Beach down to Bridgegate Square, which seeks to identify “transportation alternatives” for the area.

As many will remember, Superstorm Sandy destroyed the area of Corn Neck Road at its southernmost end, and much to the dismay of many, emergency funds were used to simply rebuild the road right where it had been. A couple of years later, at a meeting on the Coastal Resources Management Council and R.I. Sea Grant’s Stormtools that residents can use to identify the impacts of sea level rise on their properties, CRMC Executive Director Grover Fugate told those in attendance that the solution was to have an engineering plan in place for Corn Neck Road for the next time such an occurrence takes place.

Susan Moberg, the director of environmental sciences for vhb, told the crowd that it wasn’t just major storms that were damaging the area, but that there was “repetitive damage” and that the goal is to develop four alternatives, including each of their costs, and also to identify funding sources. Part of the reason for the kick-off event was to get input from the public. “Maybe you’re aware of a situation we don’t know about,” she said.

Although the goal is develop a roadway design, there are many proactive things that can be done to make the island more resilient that involve not roads per se, but also dunes, which can dissipate the wave energy produced during storms that causes more harm than sea level rise itself. 

While the CRMC has had very strict policies on what can and can’t be done, Moberg said that the agency is developing an “experimental policy” whereby they would consider trying some new things, and both they and the R.I. Department of Transportation will be consulted throughout the study.

Those in the audience had a lot of ideas, many of which they premised with phrases like “This might not be popular, but,” and “I hate this idea, but…”  Among these were closing Corn Neck to vehicular traffic from just past the gas station up to Beach Avenue; a concrete seawall opposite the Beachhead Restaurant; and dumping large rocks into the water slightly offshore, which would help lessen wave energy. At one point, Planning Board Member John Spier said: “Kim [Gaffett] is the fourth person to say ‘I have a solution, but it’s not a good one’.”

Gaffett had suggested that at the “pinch points” along Corn Neck Road, the solution could be to “disperse the water rather than… trying to hold the water back.” One of the areas for dispersal would be into Harbor Pond.

Chris Littlefield, who is also the Director of the Block Island Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said, “We need to develop a sand budget.” 

Although Moberg did ask how much the town spent on removing sand from Corn Neck Road, where it regularly blows off the dunes and onto the asphalt, Littlefield was referring more to the movements of sand in general, and how various structures, such as jetties and breakwaters move the sand around.

“A weak point could be anywhere,” said Littlefield. “Can we enhance the natural system?” he asked. He said that Crescent Beach was in the same location as it was 40 to 50 years ago, “so it’s being fed [naturally with sand]. Look at deposition as well as erosion.”

Town Council Member Martha Ball, who has spent her entire life on Block Island, remembered that Corn Neck Road, in the area of the Fred Benson Town Beach, had been raised up in 1964. She said flooding was a frequent occurrence that prevented kids from being able to get to school. “When I was a kid, every winter they put a maze of snow fencing in front of the Beach Pavilion,” Ball said. “Now the sand ends up in the parking area.” She said that now the parking lot is getting higher, which forces the water, after a heavy rain, into the road, and recalled that there used to be a culvert from the beach parking lot, under the road, draining the parking area into the Great Salt Pond. 

Moberg said they could consult aerial maps and old road plans to determine where that culvert had been and what had happened to it. 

Bernice Dangelas said there could be a range of solutions, one of which was to “Accept that nature’s taking its course… and we’re going to become two islands.” 

One solution to the two-island scenario was to “run a nice little ferry.”

Town Planner Alison Ring asked “Has there ever been a suggestion to make the road one-way?” This, she said would provide an area for walkers, and for the dunes to grow westward. 

Another suggestion was to build a causeway so that water could flow under it, with a structure durable enough to withstand a storm. Moberg said she “thought that might be an alternative that would rise to the top.”

As the suggestions flowed, vhb’s Carissa Lord jotted them down on an easel, quickly filling up more than one large piece of paper. 

The next step will be for vhb to review the project alternatives and compile plans that they will present to the Planning Board in May. These will be preliminary, with more plans and designs to be presented in July, and finally, final plan and design alternatives will be presented in August.

The staff from vhb also strongly encouraged people to take a survey (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/CornNeckRoad) consisting of six questions. There is also room for comments for those wishing to suggest more ideas.