Connecticut’s trouble with seawalls

New Haven - Rob Smuts, New Haven’s chief of emergency management, is walking down the beach at Morris Cove on an on-and-off-drizzly summer morning, his dress shoes utterly out of sync with the moment. He is talking with beachside neighbors David Kronberg and Tony Sacco about the same thing they’ve talked about for years -– seawalls.

“You’re definitely gonna go with a wall?” Kronberg asks.

Smuts responds: “I think that’s what you guys need. That’s what our experts tell us.”

And Sacco chimes in: “If we don’t get a wall we’re gonna get a breach. If we get another Sandy, you can rest assured that we’ll be on Townsend Ave.” He’s referring to the street their homes are actually on.

The issue for both men and another half-dozen or so homeowners with waterside properties on this west-facing stretch of beach along New Haven harbor is that they don’t have a wall. It’s the reason, they say, their homes are being undermined and were damaged in Irene and Sandy.

Kronberg has been in his home for 45 years; Sacco is a relative newcomer at 32 years. Both homes still show the effects of two years of tropical-style storms. Sacco’s stacked decks are tilted even though he has fortified them with a cinderblock base. He says his wife is afraid to sleep upstairs.

Kronberg has lost deck and structures on his property. Both homes are now rimmed in low jersey highway barriers that even a small wave could easily overtop.

The city is on their side, and is preparing a proposal for a seawall and looking for the $2 million it figures to cost. The city’s rationale: The homes and the natural ridge they sit on need to be protected to prevent flooding of the lower elevation land behind them that holds nearly 400 homes, not to mention Tweed Airport.

“It looks like [the sea] is trying to create a channel through where there’s no seawall," says Smuts, pointing to a spot between two homes. “And that would be a disaster.”

The scientific community is not on their side. 

The opposition

“I don’t think anybody that knows anything about how coasts work would say that seawalls are a good idea,” said Ralph Lewis, who was Connecticut’s state geologist for 30 years. He now teaches a beaches and coast course at Connecticut College and the University of Connecticut.

Such sentiment is pervasive among coastal geologists and other shoreline experts, who see seawalls -– as well as other so-called hardened structures like revetments, jetties and groins -– as the bogeymen of coastal armoring.

But for folks like Kronberg and Sacco with shoreline property at increasing risk from rising seas and more intense storms, they are the panacea that will allow them to stay in their homes.

The resulting clash pits private property rights against public policy with overtones of economics, environmentalism and flat-out politics.

The science, say coastal experts, is simple. A gently sloping beach dissipates wave energy as the water slides up and down. Sand also washes on and off sideways -– eroding and building beaches over time. It’s an absorptive beach. 

Put up a seawall and the energy pattern becomes reflective. Waves that hit a wall are magnified, sending energy up and down. The waves dig at the base of the wall in particular, a process known as scouring, that can cause even larger waves and more erosion to the point that the wall collapses. Walls also prevent that sideways movement of sediment that would normally replenish a beach.

Throw in higher water levels from sea level rise and/or storms and the dynamic gets even more potent. As sea levels rise the natural tendency of a shoreline is to migrate landward. But if there’s a seawall, the beach has nowhere to go. So it just goes away.

Along Morris Cove, residents say there’s less beach than there used to be. In addition to sea level rise, it’s possibly the result of a jetty at the outer end of the harbor that keeps sand from shifting into the cove. And it’s also possibly because a seawall does exist along part of the shore.

An authorized seawall was built in the 1980s along Nathan Hale Park, adjacent to the north end of Morris Cove. And some homes between the park and Sacco and Kronberg’s homes put up their own. The question is whether the existing walls are directing water and waves toward the homes without walls.

“Anytime you make the decision to armor one area, to protect one area with seawalls, to halt natural erosion in one place, then you’re going to cause problems elsewhere,” said Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in North Carolina and an international expert on such matters. “In addition to that you’re going to have a dramatic impact on that inner tidal ecosystem in front of that seawall.” It is better known as the beach.

Property vs. ecosystem

“You’re choosing to protect property and infrastructure at the expense of the coastal ecosystem,” he said. “This is why coastal management can’t be done one property at a time. You can’t just let people do whatever the heck they want to do.”

Dan Esty, Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection commissioner, largely concurs with that thinking and is generally not a fan of seawalls. “I think that we’ve been very clear that there needs to be a more thoughtful strategy for how we protect our coastal resources, including homes,” he said.

“Good public policy,” he continued, “insures that we don’t allow citizen ‘A’ to do something that burdens his neighbor or the community more broadly. So people do not have a right to do absolutely anything they want if it’s going to impose real harm on others around them.”

That philosophy has served as battle fodder In the Connecticut legislature in recent years. While Connecticut does not have the kind of near-bans on seawalls that states like Rhode Island and North Carolina have, seawall policy has been fairly restrictive -– generally allowing existing walls to be maintained and new walls constructed if there’s a critical need or for older inhabited structures.

It’s widely acknowledged that many illegal walls exist, built by homeowners out of the eye of DEEP, which technically has to approve them, and local zoning departments -– neither of which has the money or the staff to monitor such things.

In 2012, after much contentious debate and horse-trading, legislation was passed to minimize “shoreline armoring” in favor of "feasible, less environmentally damaging alternatives." Structures allowed to have seawalls were increased as part of the tradeoff.

And this year, in an equally contentious standoff, legislation passed allowing an easier path to upgrade seawalls, though it fell far short of an initial proposal that would have lifted most seawall restrictions.

“My main concern was the proliferation of seawalls and this language isn’t intended to have more of them erected,” said Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, who chairs the shoreline preservation task force and is co-vice chair of the environment committee. “It does make it easier for some folks to harden in some cases, but I think that’s a small number.”

But economics and reality often intrude on even the best environmental intentions. In Westport, where seawalls suffered damage from Sandy in some 20 locations, Director of Public Works Stephen Edwards said he’s “sticking with seawalls.”

“I agree with DEEP on the concept,” he said. “But their approach of no structure requires a lot more area.

“When you’re in Fairfield County and in multimillion-dollar-per-square-foot prices, you don’t have that area.” 

And that’s why when a nearly 500-foot-long timber seawall in front of the Longshore Sailing School washed out in Irene, a new modular concrete one was installed. And when its capstone layer came off in Sandy, Edwards’ department sank steel reinforcing rods in before putting on a new top layer with a stronger mortar mix.

“You’ve got to look at your overall investment,” he said, pointing to the wood sailing school building. “Here I’ve got a million dollar building sitting literally, what, 20 feet off of the seawall? I’ve got to protect that building.

“You can’t just go and bulldoze everything and put back a sand dune.”

A happy middle ground

On the other hand, even Sen. Len Fasano, a Republican who represents East Haven, has come around to thinking that maybe you can.

“You know I was a strong, strong advocate for seawalls and to some extent I still am,” he said on a broiling afternoon outside the Victoria Beach condominiums that hug Long Island Sound. Work was still under way to repair what had been a berm between the buildings and the water.

“After Irene it was partially destroyed. After Sandy it was completely gone,” Fasano said. “My first approach was a seawall.”

But after meeting with DEEP, experts and researching techniques being used elsewhere on the East Coast, he advocated a less drastic hardening. The new protection for Victoria Beach is a somewhat porous boulder riprap wall with a sloping sand shore in front. It will be planted with dune grass to hold it in place and allow for a gentle run-up of waves.

“I think there’s a happy middle ground, and I’ve come around to that happy middle ground,” he said. Even in Morris Cove. “I think the solution is to cut down on the amount of damage that’s happening by allowing the people to put back the beach they lost.”

Plus dunes and grass – but not a seawall, he agrees.

That may turn out to be a harder line than DEEP ultimately takes. “It’s not like we’re looking at an untouched stretch of beach,” said Brian Thompson, DEEP’s director of the Office of Long Island Sound Programs, who said he would look seriously at any proposal New Haven offers. “It’s a pretty hardened piece of shoreline already.”

But critics caution that all a wall will get you, even in Morris Cove, is a little bit of time.

“Beaches are the most dynamic part of the earth, said former state geologist Lewis. “There isn’t any part of the earth that changes as much as shorelines do, and we’re trying to make them not change. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Listen to Jan Ellen Spiegel's broadcast of this story at WSHU Radio.

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