Panel explores how to turn tide against beach erosion
Can seawater be stopped from further eroding shoreline beaches in Connecticut and eventually claiming developed land?
That was the question that prompted a nearly three-hour discussion in Penfield Pavilion Monday night, as state legislators and residents at Fairfield Beach talked about beach erosion, flooding, severe weather and the rise in sea levels.
The discussion, moderated by state Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, also touched on whether regulatory hurdles to building erosion-control structures were too time-consuming.
First Selectman Michael Tetreau said Fairfield's beaches are a "phenomenal" resource for recreation and that a lot of the town's infrastructure is located in the beach area. He said solutions to beach erosion and flooding could include adding sand to town beaches, planting beach grass and better dune control. "Some of the solutions are not that complex," he said.
Rising sea levels are a concern for the entire East Coast and require broad-based solutions from "the best minds in the country," Tetreau said.
But state Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, said infrastructure near the shore may eventually have to be moved. "There are going to be losses as sea level rises. There are going to be places you can't protect, places you can't reclaim," he said. "Downhill won't be quite as far downhill."
William Pitman said he's lived in his house on Fairfield Beach Road for eight years and suffered "numerous times when flooding occurred, came over the sea wall and did damage," adding that a storm last August was particularly bad.
Pitman suggested barriers in the water to slow down waves as a possible solution to flooding and beach erosion, while Peter Wiswell of Fairfield Beach Road said planting beach grass had worked well for him. "I put out beach grass and am pleased to say we've got two feet of sand since [Tropical Storm] Irene," he said.
Kathy Strachan of Reef Road, a member of Fairfield's Flood and Erosion Control Commission, said Dick Holmberg of Holmberg Technologies Inc. in Englewood, Fla., had invented "undercurrent stabilizers" that diffuse the energy of waves before they reach shore, causing the waves to drop sand instead of scouring it away from eroded beaches.
Strachan said Holmberg's invention, similar to underwater speed bumps, was included in a bill that passed the state House and Senate in 2006, but never went forward. State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, said funding for the pilot program in Fairfield and Milford expired "because no one ever did anything to institute the program."
Anthony Ruscito, who owns a home on Fairfield Beach Road, said sand could be taken from Pine Creek and deposited on beaches to restore the eroded areas. "You'll be able to use the creek and the sand is nearby," he said.
But Strachan said adding sand to beaches may not be a permanent solution. "We can dump sand, but if a big Irene comes, we could lose that sand. If you're going to dump sand, put something there to protect it," she said.
Strachan said solutions to beach erosion would involve technology, collaborating with a university and improving the permitting process.
Don Watson, a member of Trumbull's Conservation Commission, said the reason residents have repeated flooding problems is because homes have been built within flood zones. He said flood mitigation planning should be part of a municipality's Plan of Conservation and Development and that at least one municipal employee should be trained as a certified flood manager.
Alicia Mozian, Westport's conservation director, said state legislators should survey how other states have dealt with beach erosion and flooding.
Larry Paine of Fairfield Beach Road spoke about the regulatory difficulties in installing erosion-control structures. He said he had such a structure, known as a groyne, in front of his property that was damaged in a March 2010 Nor'easter and then destroyed during Tropical Storm Irene. "We lost our entire groyne. Sand then washed away to the point where it almost exposed the footings to our home," he said.
Paine said he hired a "professional permitter" to deal with paperwork to replace the groyne and that the state Department of Environmental Protection was first contacted in May 2010 and didn't grant permission to replace it until September 2011. "This was to replace an existing groyne and it was nothing but an adversarial relationship," he said. "If the Department of Environmental Protection were more helpful, it would make a big difference to all of us trying to protect this natural resource."
State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said she was concerned that Payne spent $5,000 to hire someone to interact with the DEP. "Imagine if that's what it took to register a car or get a driver's license?" she asked.
Kupchick said she heard similar complaints about the DEP at the legislative group's meeting in Branford, as well as from local contractors and builders. "Not helpful is the feeling -- the DEP is not helpful with people trying to navigate the system," she said.
"I think that is something we've heard loud and clear and something we need to do something about." Pitman said he hopes to live on Fairfield Beach Road a long time and has grandchildren who love his house and neighborhood. "I want my grandchildren to be at Fairfield Beach for a long time ... Maybe in time, Mother Nature will take it all away, but in the meantime, we're going to enjoy it," he said.