2010-12-16 / Front Page

CRMC mulls Hull Cove buffer zone

By Tim Riel

A decision on a buffer zone variance for the construction of a single-family residence on Clarke’s Village Lane was delayed by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) due to lengthy testimony given by expert witnesses on behalf of the property owner.

The CRMC heard testimony on the subject Dec. 14 during a hearing in Providence.

Mark Bard, who owns the property on the north end of Clarke’s Village Lane, was represented by attorney Beth Noonan of Adler Pollock and Sheehan. Noonan called three witnesses – an engineer, a coastal geologist and a coastal biologist – who spent nearly three hours testifying about the stability of the coastal bluff, which extends from the property to the water at Hull Cove. They also talked about the relevance of the buffer required by the CRMC.

Bard wants to construct a 24- by 62-foot three-bedroom dwelling on his property. CRMC requires a coastal buffer zone – defined as a “land area adjacent to a shoreline coastal feature that is, or will be, vegetated with native shoreline species and which acts as a natural transition zone between the coast and adjacent upland development” – of 50 feet. Bard’s proposed residence would be eight feet from the coastal bluff, not nearly enough space to comply with CRMC regulations. Thus, a variance from CRMC is required.

CRMC regulations state that the reasons for buffers are “protection of water quality, protection of coastal habitat, protection of scenic and aesthetic quality, erosion control, flood control [and] protection of historic and archaeological resources.”

For the most part, Noonan directed her questions regarding erosion and flood control.

Noonan’s first witness was Joseph Friscella, owner of Friscella Engineering Inc., who spoke primarily about the catch basin and erosion possibilities to the coastal bluff. Friscella, who has visited the site numerous times over the last decade, says that the erosion caused to the bluff was not caused by routine wave action, but rather by major storms in October 2005 and March 2010.

“I’m fairly confident that the erosion was due to the severe storms occurring in October 2005,” Friscella said. Wave action was “absolutely not” the cause of the erosion, he said.

“The bluff stability will not be affected and construction [of the residence] will not cause it to erode,” Friscella said. He also mentioned 2008 testimony from Town Engineer Michael Gray who said that the catch basin on the property was working properly.

“And it has been on all subsequent visits,” Friscella said.

On cross-examination, attorney Chris Little, a 2010 candidate for R.I. Attorney General who was representing neighboring property owners opposed to Bard’s plan, asked Friscella if Bard could “build a smaller house and not be encroaching on the buffer site?” Friscella said yes, but that this was the house that Bard wanted.

He also asked Friscella if he remembers speaking to Bard, before he bought the land, about the fact that the CRMC “wants a 50- foot buffer.”

“I don’t recall,” Friscella said.

Among the CRMC members, only Director Michael Sullivan participated in discussion with the attorneys and witnesses. Sullivan asked Friscella if he believed in climate change. If the sea water was to rise, would that change his opinion of how stable the coastal bluff would be against wave action and severe storms, Sullivan asked.

“If it came up three or four feet higher, then I believe it would still be OK,” Friscella said.

Peter Rosen, another witness, said that aside from a coastal storm, the water would not reach the vegetation. Rosen, a coastal geologist from Northeast University, said that the rock supporting the coastal bluff was “metamorphic rock, not sedimentary rock.”

“It’s an ancient rock,” Rosen said. “This is a rock that has been put under high pressure under high temperatures. It is very resistant to wave action.”

“During extreme storms, storm waves will be in contact and erosion will happen to the bluff,” Rosen said. “But this bluff is restorable. The structure itself will not impact the bluff.”

He also said that he doesn’t think increased rainfall due to climate change will affect the catch basin negatively, and that even though the sea level is rising, it is only about one foot per century, which shouldn’t affect the bluff in a significant way.

Numerous times during Rosen’s testimony, Little objected to the fact that Rosen was answering questions more adept for a soil scientist than a geologist. “It’s implied experience, not academic experience,” Rosen said.

Sullivan also questioned Rosen’s expertise of the subject: “Do you have any training or experience with soil morphology or soil genesis?” Rosen admitted that he has been dealing with coastline bluffs for 30 years, and although he didn’t actually test the soil, he could tell from experience.

While testifying, Scott Rabideau, Noonan’s final witness, was asked by Sullivan if he could tell characteristics of the soil without touching it. Rabideau, a coastal biologist and CEO of Natural Resource Services, said, “There is no way that I can do that without digging a hole and getting dirty.”

Rabideau, whose testimony was the shortest of the three witnesses, said that wildlife would remain the same on the property “with or without the house.”

Because the meeting ran later than expected, the neighboring property owners – with Little – were forced to postpone voicing their objection and did not have a chance to call witnesses. A key player in attendance against the proposal was Richard Pastore, who Little often discussed his cross-examination with before addressing Noonan’s expert witnesses. Pastore, who is expected to testify for Little when the hearing continues, is an engineer and chairman of the North Kingstown Planning Commission.

On Aug. 26, 2008, Bard and attorney Joe DeAngelis, also of Adler Pollock and Sheehan, approached the Jamestown Board of Review asking for a request to move his proposed house closer to the street and away from the coastal bluff to allow more room for the coastal buffer. The board unanimously voted against the application because of insuffi- cient evidence that the request was for the least amount of relief necessary, the reason that the matter has come in front of the CRMC.

Because of holiday scheduling, the CRMC has not set a date for the continued hearing. The chairman said that it could possibly be as late as the middle of January.

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