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Governments Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level: Rhode Island

Jennifer M. Kassakian. 2010. "Rhode Island". In The Likelihood of Shore Protection along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Volume 2: New England and South Atlantic. Edited by James G. Titus, Daniel L. Trescott, and Daniel Hudgens. Report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Excerpts are on this page. You can also download a printer quality version of this Rhode Island sea level rise planning study (pdf 3.1 MB, 40 pp).


Atlantic Coast

The state gives special attention to anthropogenic activity on the numerous barrier beaches on the southern shore. The state prohibits altering undeveloped barriers except where the primary purpose of the project is protection, maintenance, or restoration or improvement of the feature as a natural habitat for native plants and wildlife. Lack of a sediment source because of armoring the coastal headlands, coupled with sea level rise, is likely to result in narrower barriers. This will not necessarily result in negative impacts on an undeveloped barrier, but will create problems on moderately developed and developed barriers. Development on barriers inhibits their natural movement and limits their function as a natural buffer from storms. Consequently, beach nourishment programs may be established to protect structures on moderately developed and developed barriers in the future.21 Beach nourishment on undeveloped barriers is important when considering the littoral system, but it is not necessary for “protecting” the beaches. Therefore, we assume that undeveloped barriers will not be protected.

Coastal headlands are subject to slightly different policies than barriers. Because there is less development restriction on headlands than barriers, most headlands are or are likely to be densely developed in the future2 Protection options include nourishment on low-lying headlands that consist of unconsolidated material like sand and gravel, and armoring in certain areas if it is consistent with the CRMP3 Generally, they will be protected by beach nourishment unless they are characterized as "rock outcrops." Rock outcrops are not conducive to nourishment, are not permitted to be protected structurally, and will therefore not be protected.

The homes built on property adjacent to coastal lagoons are mostly serviced by septic systems. Even if a permit to erect a dike or seawall around a property were granted, the septic system would most likely fail with the rising water levels. Filling is not allowed in the buffer zone and or in the setback area. New infrastructure, including sewer systems, is allowed by regulations to be constructed in these areas. Taxpayer money is used for the construction of a sewer system, however, and thus the town must vote to go forth with a project.27 The decision to protect or abandon property would largely be based on the possibility of the installation of a sewer system. We conclude that the more densely developed an area, the more likely it is to win taxpayer approval to build a sewer. We therefore assume that undeveloped lands and those with development density of less than 1 house per acre will not be protected. Areas with greater development densities are more likely to be put on a sewer line and subsequently will almost certainly be protected.

Narragansett Bay

Narragansett Bay is characterized by lower wave energy and less erosion than the ocean-fronting coast. There are a few ongoing beach nourishment programs in the bay, but the goal of most of these programs is to create sandy beaches for recreation rather than for protection. In the future, however, beach nourishment may become a more common form of protection from sea level rise on the barriers and in “critical erosion zones.”

Because much of the intertidal area in Narragansett Bay consists of a gravel substrate, however, beach nourishment will be restricted in some locations to maintain this habitat. For this reason, lands adjacent to type 1 waters will mostly be left unprotected. Any undeveloped barrier will be left unprotected unless it is vital in protecting nearby properties. Barrier beaches labeled as developed or moderately developed will be nourished. Even if the state concluded that other lands adjacent to type 1 waters warrant protection, it is unlikely that beach nourishment would be a viable and widespread protection option in the bay because of its topography.

Much of the shore along the bay is moderately to highly developed. We expand our decision from the Atlantic coast to Narragansett Bay to conclude that undeveloped and low development density lands will not be protected and medium to high density developed lands will almost certainly be protected. We also extend our 150 foot wetland buffer into the bay to designate the lands that might be abandoned in the future to allow for wetlands migration, but where protection is still considered "likely." We also conclude that any area that is currently

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Governments Plan for Development of Most Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea (PDF, 7 pp., 1.3 MB) was originally published in Environmental Research Letters , Issue 3, Volume 4 (2009).

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