A Rising Challenge
By Ellen Liberman
Photographs by Cate Brown
Rhode Island Grapples with the Policy and Practice of Coastal Resiliency
With just a few weeks to go, the town of Narragansett was racing to meet a deadline. On March 1, a new state law would radically alter the way structures could be built in flood zones, by permitting elevated buildings that could turn a town’s waterfront into a wall of house-scrapers.
The bill would allow building height to be measured from base flood elevation (BFE), instead of the traditional method of starting at the natural grade of the land.
This could reshape a community’s shoreline, allowing houses as high as 56 feet to be built along the coast, in an effort to lift them out of the path of floodwaters and sea level rise.
Most towns cap residential structure heights at around 35 feet. The addition of another 12 to 20 feet of building height to place the first floor of living space above BFE would blot out the views and irrevocably change the character of seaside cities and towns.
Narragansett was one of a handful of towns to react immediately by amending local zoning regulations to prevent the spread of out-of-scale beach homes.
Entire communities had been built up to the water’s edge in low-lying areas, to codes that would not pass muster today, and with structures that would be easily swallowed in a storm or rising seas or slowly drowned in chronic flooding.
Narragansett’s new ordinance would confine property owners who needed to build above some of the highest BFEs to a one-story home, with an additional height allowance for a pitched roof. The first reading of the amendments was a quiet affair.
“Nobody spoke against it. Everyone understood the concern,” says Michael DeLuca, the town’s community development director. “Mother Nature is going to win this battle, and we are not going to push the oceans back.”
The hearing was a rare, tiny island of agreement in a sea of conflict over how to make coasts resilient in the age of climate change. There is little consensus on the extent of the threat (How much land will be submerged?), when it will arrive (10 years? 20 years?), what form it will take (Once-in-a-century superstorm? Nuisance tides? Erosion?), and, most importantly, how we will respond (Ignore? Adapt? Retreat?).
At the core of these disputes is the enormous economic impact to individual wealth and, by extension, to a government’s property tax base. In 2016, a Rhode Island Special House Commission to Study Economic Risk Due to Flooding and Sea Level Rise reported that as of September 2015, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had over 15,000 active flood insurance policies covering over $3.8 billion in property in the state. And while many believe the biggest threat comes from a 100-year perfect storm, housing data suggests that the market is already reacting to the less dramatic phenomenon of tidal flooding.
In January, data scientists from First Street Foundation and Columbia University estimated that tidal flooding had already erased more than $403 million in home values for coastal properties in four New England states.
“We’re looking at neighborhoods and roads. And more home value is being lost in neighborhoods with roads that flood,” says Steven A. McAlpine, First Street’s head of data science. “It is important to understand what is happening to the roads when understanding what is happening to the real estate market.”
Rhode Island alone lost nearly $45 million in relative appreciation, meaning that from 2005 to 2017, the property values of homes that were affected did not rise at the same rate as those that were not. That’s a worrisome development to cities and towns.
“A significant portion of our tax base lies on the coast—if we retreat, you are taking away the most valuable property, and your new front row will be farther from the coast,” says Chelsea Siefert, who was South Kingstown planning director at the time of this interview. “We are going to be in a significantly trying position when it comes to our tax base.”
A Road Map to Resiliency?
Planning requires a consensus on what the future holds. One of the first points of contention has been what estimates of flood risk and sea level rise policymakers should use. The flood maps generated by FEMA have long driven state and municipal-level coastal policies. They remain the basis for the National Flood Insurance Program, which lenders require homeowners in coastal zones to carry. They are also the basis of FEMA’s Community Rating System, a voluntary program that gives municipalities incentives to adopt best floodplain management practices to protect structures from flooding. The better the rating, the better the premium discount for residents who buy federal flood insurance.
The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) has argued that FEMA flood maps are outdated, as well as inaccurate in their calculations of winds, wave height, and storm surge. Last June, the CRMC adopted a Shoreline Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) that established a new “system to educate and encourage resilient building for property within the coastal zone,” based on sea level rise estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says CRMC Executive Director Grover Fugate. Permit applicants will choose a building design based on the years of building life, coupled with a sea level rise assumption, and a new set of storm surge and floodplain maps that add an accelerated erosion multiplier. The council would inform the applicant of adaptation measures he or she could take.
(Below) The Pointe development in East Matunuck rises between two salt ponds.
“Virtually every performance standard we have is premised on today’s conditions. “We don’t project into the future. Even though we know things are changing, we don’t change the performance standards people have to build to.
We aren’t giving people that information so they can make informed decisions. The Beach SAMP is an educational tool so that at end of the mortgage, you have a marketable house, and you still have a tax base. If we don’t do that, we are setting people up for failure.”
Last June, the CRMC broke the stranglehold of FEMA’s flood maps via legislation that allowed building applicants in a coastal zone to use CRMC’s maps if the BFE was higher than that on FEMA’s flood insurance maps.
But where the council saw sound policy-making, municipal planners saw disaster. Since 2016, buildings in coastal zones were measured at grade with an allowance of 5 extra feet of freeboard to raise them, with freeboard excluded from the buildings’ height calculation. Changing to a BFE standard might keep a house standing in the surge, but it would have negative consequences for whole neighborhoods. Aesthetic impacts aside, a McMansion’s robust foundation would disturb fragile land, and the house itself would leave more post-storm debris. Meanwhile, the at-grade roads and the septic systems would be underwater.
“The buildings would get higher the closer you got to the water,” says Charlestown Town Planner Jane Weidman. “It doesn’t make sense to encourage bigger, bulkier buildings that have more impact to the environment. You really want to talk about sustainability. You might want to talk about retreat. There will be a breaking point.”
Charlestown reacted to the new regulation by keeping its height cap at 35 feet for larger lots but changing its height calculations to subtract the existing grade from the BFE. (A house built at a grade that is 6 feet above sea level, with a BFE of 13 feet, would have to raise the first floor by 7 feet, for example.) South Kingstown created special overlay districts, which among other things required bigger side-yard setbacks, and second-story setbacks from the first floor, to soften the visual impact. Builders using the CRMC BFE will need a special-use permit to ensure construction practices are appropriate to the chosen sea level rise scenario.
But, most of the state’s coastal communities are just beginning to incorporate resiliency in their long-term planning. The town of Barrington—two peninsulas, bounded by Narragansett Bay to the east and riven by the Barrington and Warren rivers—is one of the state’s most vulnerable communities. A new visualization tool, developed by the CRMC and the University of Rhode Island, shows that a 100-year storm, similar to 1954’s Hurricane Carol, plus 5 feet of sea level rise, would submerge the areas around County and Massasoit roads under 15 feet of storm surge, inundating institutions like the high school and the Barrington Congregational Church and cutting off Barrington’s main emergency egress.
Town Manager Jim Cunha says Barrington is in the midst of a multi-pronged attack against flooding threats. The town has hired a resiliency director and is rebuilding the century-old sea wall that protects Matthewson Road, joining FEMA’s Community Rating System, and launching a town-wide campaign to educate residents about flooding and resiliency. It is also building a reserve fund for climate mitigation projects, transforming its Energy Committee into a Resiliency and Energy Committee, developing flooding emergency preparedness exercises, and hunting for federal or state aid.
“In a small community, the planning department is a one-man shop, and we’re juggling resiliency,” Cunha says. “The taxpayers are concerned about the tax rate, [and] we have a heavy focus on education. As we look at mitigation efforts, we’re looking for grants or matching grants. It’s a matter of priorities. No community can afford to do everything.”
Raising the Floor
The Pointe is a South Kingstown luxury beach enclave in progress. Clustered on 5 acres amid the marshlands between Potter and Point Judith ponds, its cottages are not massive—the largest is about 1,200-square feet of living space—but they are high. The first floor of living at The Pointe begins 16 feet above the ground. Each house lords over the waving phragmites to claim its 360-degree water views.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in February, the completed homes shared the commons with three cottages still in the foundation stage. Each consisted of a rectangle of eight concrete pillars that will eventually house the garage and storage, giving passersby a peek of the girding that will eventually be tucked under a skirt of cedar shakes stained a tasteful gray.
Rhode Island builders have long understood how to build resilient homes on the coast, even if they have not always done so. Today’s waterside neighborhoods are a hodgepodge of older, squat shore cottages and more recent towering homes that ensure unobstructed water views but can also withstand hurricane-force winds and storm surge.
“Within the last decade there’s been a heightened sensitivity,” says John V. Marcantonio, executive director of the Rhode Island Builders Association, which represents 900 construction companies in the state. “My generation of builders is certainly aware of the issue of sea level rise and we want to accommodate and balance it off with realistic building practices. It affects a minority of builders because most of the construction is very high end. It’s a limited sector of the economy with more specialized construction methods, field materials, rules, and practices.”
Coastal building codes nationwide toughened in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that damaged 125,000 South Florida homes in 1992 and caused $26.5 billion in economic damages. The wind was the most damaging element of Andrew, exploiting deficient building practices that allowed the storm to lift roofs right off houses. In result, local codes were amended to conform to the national code that dictates minimum design loads for structures and requires elements such as impact-resistant glass and mechanical tie downs from the roof to the foundation to keep the building envelope intact.
“Andrew haunted Florida,” says Jeff Sweenor, who has been building homes in South County for 30 years and helped develop The Pointe. “Floodwater is more of a concern specific to Rhode Island. We don’t get as many direct-hit hurricanes, but sea level rise is a significant concern to a lot of communities.”
Builders construct resilient coastal homes with break-away walls on the first levels, finishes that can withstand 24 hours of inundation and be wiped clean—no drywall—and heating and cooling systems above the flood line.
“We now have foundation systems and structures that can easily withstand storm events,” says Dave Caldwell, a builder whose family has over 50 years of experience. “Getting the living space 12 feet in the air—that’s a fairly new development, and the most significant to fortify a home in a flood zone. That building science wasn’t done 30 or 40 years ago.”
Building in resiliency adds significant costs to a project, especially if it is in a coastal high hazard area—Sweenor estimates about 20% in additional expense for new construction. And the process becomes exponentially more complicated when a homeowner seeks to improve an existing structure, initiating a lengthy and multi-agency permitting process.
“And that’s why I say to my clients, when looking at coastal home, be happy with what it is, because if you want to change it you are going to be in for a big shock,” says Lori Joyal, a broker for Lila Delman Real Estate since 2005. “It’s a shocker for people when they find out that a house six or seven streets back from the waterfront is in a flood zone. There’s a lot of complexity in changing an already existing property—that’s why I say to my buyers, ‘look at what it is, not what it can be.’”
And Caldwell says that just because contractors know how to bullet-proof a home against water and wind damage doesn’t mean they should. He is no fan of regulations that permit and encourage people to build on fragile land.
“It’s malpractice,” Caldwell says. “Sea level rise is a big threat, and we shouldn’t be building in a salt marsh. I’m not doing houses in areas where the road’s not going to be there in a couple of years. I’m not interested in that project.”
When Dov Sax went house-hunting in Barrington in 2017, he was looking for four bedrooms, a big backyard, and peace of mind. His last must-have centered on two words never mentioned on any HGTV show: flood risk. At just 6 feet above sea level, Barrington, Sax knew, was particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. So, like any buyer, he went to lots of open houses.
But unlike most buyers, Sax, a Brown University conservation biologist with a research specialty in climate change and species extinction, also cross-referenced potential properties with the town’s FEMA flood maps and weighed the future flood risks. He knew that if his lender compelled him to buy flood insurance, it would boost the cost of homeownership and affect his ability to sell the house later on.
“I wanted to steer clear of current flood zones and even areas classified as low risks because the FEMA maps do not consider sea level rise. In the future, some of those low-flood risk areas might get reclassified. I wanted to be in my new house for 20 years or longer, and I didn’t want it to be on a parcel that might get reclassified because that might lower its value,” he recalled. “It really constrained my homebuying options; it made the search harder. There were houses that were nice, but I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do that. It’s too risky.’ But it really wasn’t on the radar of most people I talked to.”
Denial about the costs of and the threats posed by sea level rise is not exclusive to the average homeowner. In 2012, the North Carolina legislature passed a measure forbidding the adoption of any “rule, policy, or planning guideline that defines a rate of sea-level change for regulatory purposes” after scientists from the state’s Coastal Resources Commission issued a report estimating a century-long sea level rise of 39 inches.
In 2015, the Miami Herald reported that former Gov. Rick Scott prohibited the state’s Department of Environmental Protection officials from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in any public or even interagency communications.
Rhode Island policymakers seeking regulatory changes to ensure resilient building and the tax dollars to protect infrastructure and their property tax base know that public understanding is critical to building political support for difficult decisions. The second recommendation of that 2016 House commission considering flooding’s economic risk was: “Increase statewide awareness.” The commission acknowledged the ignorance of many policy makers and recommended mandatory climate, flooding, and sea level rise training for local planning commissions, zoning boards, and Realtors and disseminating CRMC’s flood risk information.
Belief in the impact of sea level rise is starting to affect new housing construction. A study co-authored by Lint Barrage, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California Santa Barbara, found that in locales where there is widespread belief in the threat of sea level rise, there is significantly less new housing construction in counties with more sea level rise exposure.
South Kingstown Realtor Will Litvin expects coastal resiliency to increasingly become an issue.
“I had a buyer considering a property in Jerusalem [in Narragansett] who did a good deal of due diligence, and because of the flood risk and the financials that come with it, he is not pursuing that property,” says Litvin, owner and broker of Lighthouse Real Estate Group. “I think when you have a ready, able, and willing buyer who is educated [and] makes a conscious decision not to go forward, how can that not affect things?”
Still, not all buyers—or owners—are that savvy.
“There’s only so much waterfront, there’s only so much water-view property—that’s the premier demand,” says Joyal, whose clients determined to own a beachfront vacation home don’t really factor in flood risks.
Another study Barrage co-authored with University of Arizona public policy researcher Laura Bakkensen on the intersection between actual flood risk and the average person’s perception of that risk bears that out. The pair studied home price data, conducted a door-to-door survey of residents in flood zones, and used a quantitative coastal housing market model to project coastal home prices across the belief of flood risk and different policy scenarios. They found that residents who live in flood zones appeared to be far less worried about flood damage than those who did not, and an estimated 70% thought that their flood risk was actually below what the inundation model projected.
“If we start slowly, we can spread the pain of transition. If we keep delaying it, you risk these sudden devaluations,” Barrage says. “Beliefs are critical for adaptation to sea level rise. We know we can reduce the overall economic cost if we adapt and look ahead.”