Dune protection discussed
Members of the community gathered on Wednesday, June 4, at a Town Council work session to discuss the protection of a valued island resource. The dunes along Corn Neck Road, which serve as a natural buffer between the ocean and the town-side of the road, have taken a beating over the years due to storms and public use.
According to those in attendance at the meeting, people of all ages routinely climb over the dunes to access the beach, despite the fact that there are posted “Beach Access” signs and pathways along the length of the beach. Some islanders noticed a great deal of activity on the dunes — children playing on them, etc. — during the recent Memorial Day Weekend.
Highway Superintendent Mike Shea recently opened up a large access point, which is flanked by boulders, across from The Beachead restaurant.
This throughway, Shea said, is designed to provide beach access without trampling the dunes. In the event of a storm, the boulders can also be moved to close the gap and repair the barrier.
Councilman Chris Warfel said he was confused as to why that access was opened up, as it destroyed some dunes in its wake. Shea said that he had to weigh his options and that providing an access point prior to the beach season, rather than having people walk over the rest of the dunes, made the most sense.
Town Manager Nancy Dodge said that new signs directing beachgoers to keep off the dunes were recently delivered and will be posted soon. Shea reported that signs and rope fences will also be installed on the beach side of the dunes to deter climbers. He said he hoped to have the latter in place this weekend.
A larger conversation ensued about whether or not these measures would be effective. Town residents suggested alternative methods and also urged the council to consider the bigger picture and long-term planning.
Wooden stairs over the dunes, mat pathways and snow fencing were all discussed as options for directing people to the beach. Second Warden Ken Lacoste pointed out that dunes are difficult features over which to build stairs, as there is no solid landing point, and First Warden Kim Gaffett said that stairs might be a safety issue as beachgoers lugged their paraphernalia up and over.
Shea cautioned against the use of snow fencing, as it is not a durable option. Without proper maintenance, the fencing breaks down and wooden shards litter the beach. Many agreed that, from an aesthetics standpoint, fencing might not be the way to go.
Mat pathways, like the ones utilized at beaches in Westerly, were a popular option. Shea said that mats, unlike stairs, could be removed and salvaged if there was a storm. Resident Kevin Hoyt cautioned against using any non-biodegradable mat material. He said that coconut fiber mats, for example, were a cheap and environmentally friendly option that would encourage dune grass growth, which is essential for holding the sands in place.
“We need to do everything we can to stabilize that,” Hoyt said.
The topic then turned to public involvement. Hoyt said that there are environmental organizations, such as Save the Bay, that volunteer to plant dune grass, which all agreed was a necessary next step in securing the dunes. Town Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick said that community investment was key, and that there were plenty of locals who would be glad to help out.
William Penn, President of the Block Island Residents Association (BIRA), echoed Fitzpatrick.
“I would like to see us, as a community, develop a comprehensive plan,” Penn said.
Penn said that BIRA designed notices about the dunes that will be posted on Interstate Navigation ferries and in The Block Island Times. He reminded those in attendance that BIRA had also raised money for fencing and signs, and would be happy to engage the community through outreach and volunteer organization. The more people that are aware of the issue, Penn said, the better the results.
Sven Risom, President of the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, suggested bringing in field experts to educate the town council and the public.
“There are low cost, very knowledgeable people who want to help,” Risom said.
Risom also said that expertise was necessary in determining a long-term plan for coastal management. While the meeting attendees agreed that planting dune grass, erecting signs and developing pathways were important next steps, they also thought that there need to be long-term preparations made. Penn used the old adage that there was too much focus on one tree, rather than on the forest as a whole.
“I just want to hear that there’s a plan,” Risom said.
According to Penn, beach access north of the monument on Corn Neck Road is also necessary, as higher tides often make climbing over the dunes the only way to get to the beach. The area north of the monument is also the weakest, and new material needs to be brought in to fill the dunes. According to Dodge, dredging is not currently an option, meaning manpower, equipment and permits need to be obtained from elsewhere.
“It’s a big-time project, something the state needs to get involved in,” Shea said.
Dodge was charged with the task of looking into bringing in expertise and equipment for building up the dunes, particularly north of the monument. Resident Jules Craynock, who has been working with researchers at the University of Rhode Island and studying the dunes for about a year, will collaborate with Dodge to contact experts.