Madison – Heather Crawford was incredulous.

“Look at that, they’re irrigating,” she said as sprinklers soaked a perfect green grass lawn on top of a beachside seawall. Water dripped down the side leaving a large and expanding stain on the wall, which had been rebuilt after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the previous one.

To Crawford, chair of the Madison Conservation Commission and a marine ecologist, the lawn –- not to mention its midday watering — was exactly what not to do along the shoreline.

“The turf grass has very little root system so the waves were just able to eat out all the dirt underneath,” she said, explaining why Irene caused the earlier seawalls and the property beyond them to collapse. “We are always advising people that live on the waterfront that a buffer is the best thing to do.” 

But the pervasive sentiment among shoreline property owners -– evident all along this stretch of Madison — is that the way to preserve their views and their access to the beach is to plant and maintain lawns. Because such a practice defies what climate change and even a subdued Mother Nature would dictate, as well as jeopardizing the environmental quality of the shoreline and its water, a new website has been launched to help homeowners and communities do otherwise.

With a mouthful of a name — Coastal Riparian Landscaping Guide for Long Island Sound –- the site offers a simple interactive tool for figuring out what plants would work best along the shoreline, plus design sketches and other information on how to do it.

“It’s to show people that you can have plantings and still have your water view and still have your access to the water,” said Juliana Barrett of Connecticut Sea Grant. She masterminded the project as a collaboration with the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources using a $35,000 grant from the Long Island Sound Study Future’s Fund.

“People lost thousands of dollars worth of landscaping between Irene and Sandy,” she said. 

Vegetation on coastal properties inundated with salt water died instantly. Salt spray traveled as far as two miles inland damaging, if not killing, vegetation in the weeks that followed. The aftermath featured large swaths of brown grass, shrubbery and even trees.

But the core of the website’s purpose is more environmental than ornamental and financial -– to prevent a repeat of the eroded, if not collapsed, landscapes that resulted from the storms coupled with sea level rise.

Vegetation with longer root systems than the generally preferred lawns thwarts erosion. In many shoreline areas, including Madison, where homes typically have septic systems instead of sewers, erosion control is particularly important in preventing sewage spills that can occur when vegetation is inadequate to hold the ground, and therefore the pipes, in place.

Deeper and denser root systems are more adept at capturing storm and other runoff that often carry pollution from people’s lawn fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and other contaminants that otherwise would land in Long Island Sound with the potential to harm aquatic life.

And native plants are often far better at handling the more frequent coastal weather extremes, including having the ability to sit in floodwaters – and salty ones at that.

But Barrett admitted that going with a pure environmental angle on the website was not the best sell.

“The salt tolerance is a way to capture people’s attention, but definitely the focus of it is on the importance of riparian corridors,” she said. “I think that message just isn’t as captivating maybe to a homeowner as how to protect their landscaping or how to create landscaping that could last through another couple of storms.”

The site poses three initial questions: a property’s proximity to salt, its protection, and its slope. The answers establish parameters for an appropriate list of native plants suitable to the terrain and sketches of sample landscape layouts. There are fact sheets explaining the importance of riparian corridors on the Sound, how to prepare an area for planting and then how to plant and care for it.

“It’s to give people a place to start,” Barrett said. “People tend to move to the shore and put in all their favorites without thinking about a storm event that could wipe them all out. We really want to promote native plants that can withstand that.”

Among the many the site recommends: Beach plums, Carolina and Virginia roses (the long-popular Rosa ragosa is now considered invasive), bear berries, seaside goldenrod and American beach grass.

Detailed information on their availability and sources will be added to the site in cooperation with the state’s large nursery industry. Bob Heffernan, executive director of the Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association said his members have long pushed native species, but it can take time and things like repeated storms to get people to change.

“In some cases we were so surprised people were invested and connected to plants and had just wanted to replace them,” he said, describing the tendency to replant vulnerable species like Bradford pear trees after the storms. He expects the way homeowners eventually stop using plants deer eat, they will eventually stop planting varieties that can’t handle severe weather.

Marcy Balint, a coastal planner with the office of Long island Sound programs within the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, is already using the website, sending the link to the towns she works with. She plans to add a link to the DEEP website.

“The way they’ve done it is really user-friendly,” she said. “You don’t have to be a specialist; it’s really clear.”

She said demonstration sites, which the website creators also plan to add, will be critical. “Local land use decision-makers are really key to this stuff,” Balint said. “And if they can see it’s working.”

In Madison, Crawford is also already using information from the website. She typically recommends at least a 10-foot buffer of native vegetation between the water and any lawn. But she said even that minimum can be a tough sell.

“People love their view,” she said. “Some people are like ‘natural vegetation, that will invite bugs and ticks and other things that I don’t like.’

“So it can be a very tough sell.”

But not as tough as the next one her commission is considering: mandatory vegetated buffers on waterfront properties.

But she and Barrett both said spending the money to make those changes now will likely mean spending less time and money later.

“The more you can do,” Barrett said. “I think the better off you’re going be in the long run when that next storm does come along.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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