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.