Historical and Legal Context for Rhode Island’s Erosion Woes

Ed Thomas

Insightful thoughts submitted by attorney and Natural Hazard Mitigation Association President Ed Thomas on the NYT Rhode Island article I mentioned yesterday:

This extremely important article displays a thoughtful approach to 1) the questions of what we should do about sea level rise and beach erosion; 2) the very real problems we face as a society dealing with both gradual and storm-induced erosion; and 3) how the erosion problem fits into public safety.

The locus of the story is the Town of South Kingston, which is famous for a number of reasons:

  • It is the town which attempted, with all good intentions, to ban construction on a barrier beach. That ban was held to be a “Taking” in the Annicelli case which I mention in most of my lectures [Annicelli v. Town of South Kingston, 463 A.d 133 (1983)].
  • It is one of the two places where a HUD [US Department of Housing and Urban Development] study documented that the National Flood Insurance Program actually induced construction to take place, which would otherwise not have been possible due to local lenders “blue lining” some hazardous areas in which they had previously lost money.
  • It is part of the general area in which the US Government, in a book produced by the Federal Writer’s Project after the great New England Hurricane of 1938, indicated that “(t)here are earnest proposals that seaside resorts pass zoning laws.” That book, (New England Hurricane, Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1938) went on to suggest that “the New England Council hopes to persuade owners to build cottages further inland instead of at the water’s edge.” The book further suggested that “(e)rrors of a century’s haphazard building may now be rectified.” The methodology of that rectification was suggested to be federal funds for more substantial reconstruction, “broad uncluttered sand dunes,” and Army surveys of beaches accompanied by jetties and sea walls.

Hopefully, today we would agree with the parts of the book which recommend local zoning and the need to build away from the shoreline; maybe not so much sea walls and jetties.

I do rather wish the NYT article had discussed why folks build where they build, and why it is allowed. Perhaps in another, future article?

The article quotes two of the folks from the State of Rhode Island Coastal Council who take a most thoughtful approach to Coastal Development: Grover Fugate, Executive Director and Janet Freedman, Coastal Geologist.

Have thoughts? Send them our way.

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