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SOUTH KINGSTOWN â€“ For decades, South Kingstown and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) have tried to come up with a solution that would simultaneously protect Matunuck Beach Road from falling into the ocean and preserve the environmentâ€™s natural process.
In 2012, the town and the state are still looking for that solution.
In a 7-2 vote, CRMC â€“ the state agency whose mission is to protect and preserve coastal areas â€“ decided that South Kingstownâ€™s application to erect a 200-foot sheet pile wall along the townâ€™s right of way on Matunuck Beach Road does not meet the criteria for a special exemption and denied the application. Chairwoman Anne Maxwell Livingston and member Ronald Gagnon cast the minority votes.
The decision ended a four-hour meeting at the overflowing Corless Auditorium on the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus. Emotions ran high as homeowners, wearing save Matunuck tee shirts, pub owners, environmental groups and town officials pleaded their cases.
To get a special exemption â€“ granted to activities not normally permitted under council rules- the town had to prove the shoulder reinforcement served a compelling public purpose, supported a water-dependent that the economy relies on, and that other alternatives were tested.
According to the council, the town did not meet its burden of proof in exhausting other alternatives, such as beach replenishment, burritos (sand bags) or road relocation. South Kingstown was sent back to the drawing board.
â€śIâ€™m not convinced that sufficient alternatives were done,â€ť said Tony Affigne, who on the outset opposed the plan. â€śThe claim that this is no longer a beach is simply not true. Iâ€™m convinced more that we need to replenish and protect the beach.â€ť
Town Manager Stephen Alfred and Richard St. Jean, the town engineer consultant, said the wall â€“ running 202 feet on the landward side from the western boundary of the Ocean Mist â€“ was the only viable option to save the 250 Matunuck homes and businesses. The zero pressure wall, St. Jean, explained is designed to lose material and still stand up.
Alfred also contended that without the road 75 jobs would be lost from the Vanilla Bean, the Ocean Mist, La Strada Pizzeria and other businesses, which would negatively impact the economy.
Relocation of the road, Alfred claimed, is not feasible. One option for inward retreat would interfere with a water pipe being implemented at Mary Carpenterâ€™s Campground. A second option would push the road to Prospect Avenue across the salt marsh â€“ what the town considers â€śthe bridge to nowhere.â€ť
â€śWe could find no viable alternative to fortification of the road at the existing location,â€ť Alfred said.
The townâ€™s main goal is to protect the road before major storms - that do not require evacuations - send the ocean water flooding into Matunuck. Such a situation would either cut water access off residents to the west or block road access to residents to the east.
â€śOur concern is that Matunuck Beach Road serves 250 homes. If there is a breach of the road, we lose public service. Thatâ€™s the key and we need to move forward,â€ť Alfred stated. â€śBased on the road and our concerns of a breach, our application meets the conditions.â€ť
Though the town believes Matunuck faces imminent peril, the CRMC have their doubts.
â€śI understand the peril, but not the imminent,â€ť mocked David Abedon, a council member.
Though the 288 homeowners in Carpenterâ€™s Beach Meadows stood behind the town, lawyers representing the Ocean Mist and Tara Joyceâ€™s Family Pub and environmental activists, such as Save the Bay and RI Surf Rider Foundation, vehemently opposed the plan.
Brian Wagner, attorney for Surf Rider, argued the sheet pile wall is antiquated beach management and asked the CRMC to enforce its rules.
â€śThe town has not adequately explored alternatives that were pushed to the side because they are not easy to deal with as opposed to shoving a wall into the ground,â€ť Wagner stated.
Attorney for the pub owners, Steve Brien, demanded other solutions, stating, â€ś[the town] has blinders on â€“ sheet wall blinders.â€ť
Sean Coffey, an attorney for four homeowners, accused the town for only caring about the road and not about the homes or property. Alfred countered that the purpose of the road is to provide public safety access to those homes and properties.
The council postponed its decision on South Kingstownâ€™s second proposal to re-designate 1,400 feet of the Matunuck shoreline to â€śmanmade.â€ť This plan will be heard on April 24 at 6 p.m. at URIâ€™s Bay Campus.
While discussions continue on how to save Matunuck, Judith Sine, a resident in 1981, said it is too late.
â€śIn 1981, my house fell in the ocean. In 1981, the crisis occurred and here we are in 2012 talking about a sheet pile wall. It looks like youâ€™re just giving up,â€ť Sine said.