Shoreline access issues being addressed

Environmental expert provides feedback
Thu, 10/04/2018 - 7:45pm

In the fall of 2014 at the suggestion of then-First Warden Kim Gaffett, the Town of New Shoreham created a working group to study shoreline access points around Block Island and evaluate them for general condition, safety, and emergency access, among other things. The members of the Shoreline Access Working Group spent the next year doing site visits and evaluations, finally compiling their findings and recommendations in a report to the Town Council. 

That report “prioritized” six sites where work needed to be performed to address various issues and was presented to the Town Council in December of 2015, but little if any action was taken. Now the report has come off the proverbial shelf and some of the sites are finally receiving some much-needed attention.

On Monday, October 1, Town Manager Ed Roberge along with Assistant Professor of environmental geosciences at Eastern Connecticut State University, Bryan Oakley, and some members of the Town Council, Gaffett, and others revisited some of those sites to take a fresh look. The group started at “the cut” at the southern end of Corn Neck Road and proceeded north, examining the revetment on Corn Neck Road that was built after Super-storm Sandy, as well as Scotch Beach, Andy’s Way, West Beach, and Grace’s Cove Road. Later, at 4 p.m., they reconvened at Town Hall to discuss things further.

Oakley has been involved with the R.I. Coastal Resource Management Commission’s BeachSAMP project since 2011. He told those present that initially, Block Island was left out of the program, but was added in 2013. Since then, Oakley has been studying bluff erosion and shoreline change, performing regular beach profiling on Block Island with the assistance of local residents and his students from ECSU.  He said: “I’m here as a friend of the island – not as a paid consultant.”

First on the agenda was the Corn Neck beach cut – the area across the road from the gas station and the Beachead Restaurant, where the dune is opened in the summer and closed off with sand and gravel during the off-season. Those present guessed the cut had been made and maintained for about 30 years. It allows for vehicular access, primarily intended for emergency vehicles. 

The question at hand was whether the cut should remain closed all year. When on the Shoreline Working Group, members Sven Risom, now on the Town Council, and Highways Supervisor Mike Shea disagreed on the issue. Risom was concerned that storm surge could flow through the area and breach the Great Salt Pond. Shea advocated for the annual opening. 

“If you made me king for a day,” said Oakley, “I’d keep it closed,” but he also acknowledged that the cut could be filled in quickly in the event of a storm. He said that the “big vulnerability” in the area was not at the cut but 60 yards north where the road got washed out during Sandy. Of the cut, he said: “It’s not a dune – it’s a dike. There’s bigger fish to fry.”

Roberge told the Town Council: “We’d recommend keeping that practice” of opening the cut yearly.

Risom thanked Oakley for being there and said “I was the one who brought it up.” He added: “Your explanation helped a lot” in explaining that the vulnerability was down the road. 

Resident Nigel Grindley, who is a volunteer beach profiler, asked about the problem of sand blowing from the cut across the road.

Oakley said blowing sand could be mitigated with snow fencing. “Any time you create a gap, wind will blow the sand through it.”

Risom said the sand could be cleaned up with the street sweeper.

“It takes two minutes,” said Shea.

“Moving up the road,” said Roberge, “we also talked about other initiatives.” Speaking of the revetment constructed as part of the Corn Neck Road reconstruction immediately after Sandy, he said there was already an application filed with the CRMC to perform maintenance there.

“The rocks are there already,” said Oakley, stressing that he was “not an engineer,” although he also said one of the problems might be the size of the rocks.

Oakley, who is a fan of soft solutions such as sand and gravel, as opposed to hard solutions such as sea walls, said he believed that the way to deal with rising sea levels and storm surge was to “retreat, elevate, and adapt,” meaning mitigation.

Scotch Beach was next. Roberge framed the problem of storm surge coming in straight from the ocean and through the access road where it then floods the parking lot.  Ideas ranged from “meandering” the road to installing some type of structure utilizing sand and/or rocks. “All options would require some engineering…we didn’t pin it down.”

Oakley said of the idea of meandering, or angling the access road: “It came up, in this room,” a few years ago. (The occasion was a CRMC and R.I. Sea Grant presentation in October 2015 on Adaptation Planning for Coastal Hazards at Town Hall, where the agencies unveiled their new Storm Tools program.)

“It’s only a 50-foot wide corridor,” said Oakley, who advocated for having “material available in case of a storm. Sand and gravel is preferable to rip rap. Keep it simple.” He then went on to say that the area between Scotch Beach and the beach pavilion to the north is one of the “most robust dune systems in New England.”

Shea said he hadn’t been to the beach in a while and “I was surprised to see how much the beach side has come in.”

Town Councilor Martha Ball said she too had not walked the area lately and didn’t realize the access road was as curved as it was. “It’s not a straight shot,” she said. 

“There is a slight curve there,” said Oakley. “I like the idea of turning it at the end” towards the southeast.

Grindley asked: “Why do we need a road there at all?” He said you could get a vehicle to the area from Fred Benson Town Beach in the event of an emergency. “Then you wouldn’t have a problem with water in the parking lot.”

Ball took exception to the idea of having no vehicular access to the beach from Scotch all the way up to Mansion Beach. “It’s irresponsible to cut that off,” she said, given the number of people using the beach in the summer and the need for emergency access. 

There was some discussion focusing on smaller storms versus “the big one,” of which Lacoste said: “It only takes one to make some pretty serious issues.”

 “In my mind, it’s subtle – shaping the entrances,” said Oakley. “Engineer for the smaller storms – you can’t do anything about the big ones.”

Of Andy’s Way, Roberge said: “It would be a top priority.” The suggestion is to install an elevated, wooden boardwalk much like what is at Mosquito Beach. “We’ll move forward with that,” he said, “and knock on the door at the R.I. Department of Environmental Management for funding.” 

“I’m all for those kind of structures,” said Oakley, as it provides access to the shoreline while going over marsh areas.

“Years ago that was accessible to vehicles,” said Lacoste.

After some discussion, the consensus was that the boardwalk should be wide enough for people to navigate it with a small sailboat dolly, but less than eight feet wide so no vehicles, other than an ATV (for emergency purposes) could drive on it.

Shea said that erosion at Andy’s Way was identified by the Shoreline Access Group as particularly problematic “because there’s so much activity, with little kids and the elderly, we thought it was safer access with a boardwalk.” As for the exact width, he said that the Rescue Squad was getting a new ATV soon, and “so we’ll measure that first.”

Grace’s Cove may get a similar boardwalk treatment, including both ramps and flat areas to accommodate the steep grade, and a safety rail. Roberge told The Times that the project would require an engineering study, which isn’t in the current budget, but might be included in the future. 

Roberge also updated people on the progress of the West Beach revetment project, which has just begun. He said he had been concerned that when vegetation in the area was cleared, a lot of material from the old landfill would be found at the surface, but there wasn’t.

“We looked at the area with Bryan,” said Roberge. The current plan, he said “may not be a permanent solution, but it’s a reasonable solution.”

Oakley said that West Beach had the highest rate of erosion on Block Island, and that the current plan was not his “preferred solution.” “I would rather see retreat than armoring,” he said. 

“Charleston Beach is stealing the sand” from West Beach, said Grindley.

This led to a rather lengthy discussion on the movement of sand in the area, the possibility of fortifying the beach with dredged sand, and the potential environmental impacts of that on the eel grass and cobble environment there.

As for access, Roberge told the group that grading at the end of West Beach Road would be performed and a walkway installed to provide lateral access over the beach.

“I’m encouraged to hear about the walkway,” said Oakley. “Beach access is important in Rhode Island.”

At the end of the meeting, Oakley advised keeping “science in mind” when dealing with challenges. He said it was “no problem coming out” to the island.  “It’s always great how much the community is involved…I think it’s awesome.”