Save the Beach or Save Your House: Which Would You Choose?

Apr 25, 2012 by  | Bio |  9 Comment »

Last night, in the Town of South Kingstown, Rhode Island, the State’s coastal management agency met to hear the Town’s plea to reclassify Matunuck Beach –a natural headland bluff and coastal beach – as a manmade beach. This reclassification, the Town argued, would allow the business and home owners in the village of Matunuck to defend themselves against the rising sea and the erosion that is eating away feet of beach weekly by allowing them to build a sea wall along the beach. With less than three feet between the ocean and the state road, the Town argued that without the reclassification, the peril to its citizens and to the road, which has been there since the late 1800s, was imminent.

Many supported the reclassification and some opposed it. Legal arguments, policy arguments, and economic arguments were all advanced over the course of four hours. But, shortly before 10 p.m., the second to last public witness, advanced an argument that brought a hush to the room of hundreds.

A young woman from Matunuck approached the podium from the back of the auditorium in her jeans and flip-flops. When she began to speak she was visibly nervous and apologetic for not being as comfortable as others who preceded her. Her hands were shaky, her voice unsteady, but her point was resoundingly clear. She had lived in Matunuck for twenty-five years. She loved the village and the people in it. She had grown up playing on the south coast’s barrier beaches. I waited for her to express her support for the reclassification of the beach and the construction of a sea wall to save the town, but she expressed something else.

She thought the Town’s approach and the whole conversation we were having reflected an incredible short-sightedness and that the solutions proposed were short-spanned. She found it hard to believe that people were actually talking about trying to save a house or a road or a business on the grounds that it had been in Matunuck for 50 or 100 years. “The beach and these bluffs and this ecosystem have been here for millions of years,” she said. She expressed her genuine concern that if we allowed for the construction of a wall on this beach that we would destroy the entire barrier beach system and the hope that these beaches would be here for our children.

Here this woman stood, courageously arguing against her neighbors, and perhaps even her own self-interest to save the beach for the future. I remember thinking to myself, “so this is what climate change and sea level rise looks like when we add people to the equation.” It is people, not policies, that will have to make the hard choices between the long-term interests of a community and their own private interests. Neighbors from close-knit communities will disagree on both solutions and outcomes. Governments will have to balance long-term economic sustainability with immediate financial crises.

If we wait to respond to the inevitable, these scenes will begin to play out more often throughout our New England communities. But, if we’ve grown tired of waiting for the choices to be thrust upon us, there is something we can do about it.

We can begin to identify the strategic solutions that allow for bearable economic costs, minimal and organized relocation, and sustainable resource protection measures. We can protect our own interests and the longer-term interests of a broader community.

9 Responses to “Save the Beach or Save Your House: Which Would You Choose?”

  1. Timothy Harwood

    Great blog. Go CLF!

  2. Kathryn O'Hare

    So few people, understand the details, urgency and seriousness of our Matunuck Beach dilemma, one that may well be a sample of similar conditions in other coastline areas around the country. Tricia Jedele’s article, “Save the Beach or Save Your House: Which Would You Choose?”, brings forward the personal impact of this eco-and-life-changing coastal condition, and makes one realize that it will take a community of local residents and businesses, environmentalists, government officials, and concerned citizens everywhere, to find a solution that will protect our land, our environment and the places we love and call home. This should not be about neighbor against neighbor, or residents against government, or uniformed protagonists against environmentalists. All must come together, with knowledge and facts in hand, together developing an informed footprint that may help protect our pristine barrier beaches, our precious ecosystems, and our beloved home towns. Please continue to keep us informed, as CLF is providing scientific research and data that is needed in the equation to help direct a beneficial course of action.

  3. Tara

    Continue your difficult and important work! RI’s beaches and oceanfront should continue to have the shared ownership of all Rhode Island’s citizens, not just a handful.

  4. Anita Robertson

    East Matunuck is the beach we drive to in the summertime – even though it’s 50 miles away. IMHO, RI beaches can’t be beat (except apparently by the sea!).

    I made a donation today to help CLF address the issue of beach erosion here, at one of my favorite beaches, and elsewhere. Thank you CLF!

  5. Roy Bingham

    This will be one of the hottest topics for debate of the century. It is so important that that we have strategic and long term thinking to find the least painful solutions and I don’t think politicians will be likely to make wise long-term decisions – witness the very limited debate over the decision to invest in the reconstruction of New Orleans. Property along the Rhode Island southern shoreline was almost eliminated by the hurricane of 1938. Now it is densely residential, especially with Summer homes. Yet it has been apparent ever since the hurricane that this is a very fragile area and anyone building on it should not expect their property to last. So now those of us who chose to live in more sustainable locations and to enjoy the southern shore as a place to visit, not as a place to live, may be expected to help pay for massive reconstruction efforts for those who chose to build in unsustainable locations. Or perhaps, nature should take its course?

  6. Clay Turnbull

    Thanks to this article I’m now aware of a specific community I can follow to see how the community deals with climate change. Twenty years ago or so I worked on sustainable transportation issues as a participant in the American Tour de Sol. A team in the event traveled from Micronesia to bring a message to America. Their ancestral burial grounds were being overtaken by the advancing sea. The productive cropland at the base of island mountains was being inundated by salt water. I could see climate change in the eyes of these people. It made a life altering impression on me. Learning of this community in Rhode Island has a similar impact. I appreciate CLF bringing my attention to this.

  7. Tricia Jedele

    I would like to thank everyone for their comments, concerns and support. The twin issues of climate change and of preserving RI’s beaches, so valuable for their environmental, economic and – as your comments attest – personal value, are at the core CLF RI’s work. We encourage you to come back to CLF Scoop often for updates on this and other work. We’ll keep you posted on any updates on Matunuck as they develop.

    Tricia K Jedele
    VP & Director, CLF RI

  8. Louise

    We must let nature take its course! We have already destroyed some of our coastlines in the name of progress. Nature gives AND takes away.

  9. Sarah Courchesne

    Thanks for tracking this, CLF–you might wish to check out our blog post on the subject?