The turf of Seanetter Doris Briggs has been in the news lately; RI_23 is just down the way from a stretch of Matunuck Beach Road on the verge of crumbling into the sea. Only a few feet now separate the road from the crashing waves that have eroded the headland there. Residents of South Kingstown are divided on the course to be taken, with many oceanfront property owners advocating for a change in the beach’s designation from a coastal bluff to a manmade shoreline. If reclassified, the beach could then be reinforced with a seawall to protect both the road and the buildings along it. Last month, the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council denied the request for reclassification, but expressed willingness to entertain a more limited plan including beach replenishment with sand, and limited wall construction.
Having grown up near the barrier beaches of Plum Island, Massachusetts, I watched with bemusement as the residents repeatedly rebuilt their beachfront homes on ever taller stilts only to watch the ocean tear them down (again). These debates over seawalls and beach renourishment, replenishment, jetties and groins often come down to the same dichotomy facing the Rhode Islanders of Matunuck now: reinforce the beach with granite walls and lose what sand beach is left, or let the ocean take what it will and preserve the shoreline in as close to a natural state as possible. It often comes down to saving the houses of the few people rich enough to afford a place on the beach, or saving the beach for the rest of the people who can only visit. It’s saving the houses for some people, or saving the beach for the beach. Or even not saving the beach as we know it, and letting it erode away entirely, if that’s what the tides dictate. At the end of the town hearings in South Kingstown last month, a woman spoke about her childhood visits to Matunuck. She pointed to our human sense of scale–wanting to save houses that are 50 or 100 years old at the expense of a seascape that is millions of years old.
I can’t help but be pleased that the reclassification has failed. I have faith that this will get sorted out in a sensible fashion in the coming months; I know there are good stewards of the coastal ecosystem down there in Rhode Island. And in the end, we’re all going to have to face it–when you battle the ocean, the ocean always wins.