Climate Crisis

Warren’s Rising Waters Compel Officials to Plan Retreat

Experimental economic redevelopment to address town’s flooding woes

The flooding of Market Street is becoming a common problem. (Bob Rulli/town of Warren)

As flood water continues to inundate the Metacom Avenue and Market Street neighborhoods of Warren, R.I., municipal officials are taking progressive action to protect at-risk homes and businesses.

The town’s new adaptation and improvement plan for the Market to Metacom commercial corridor would holistically address climate-change challenges while promoting economic development. It proposes to buy vulnerable, flood-prone properties and relocate the displaced to a redeveloped corridor, where a setting of retail, restaurants, and mixed-income housing would offer safety out of the floodplain.

Town manager Kate Michaud said this new central business district would create a permanent home for those who are displaced.

“Our attention goes to the loss of community, not the loss of property value. What we really don’t want to see happen, is that we start losing teeth in our smile,” she said. ‘The area is a very tight community, with folks that have lived there for generations. Once you start losing residents, you start to lose the fabric of that community. So, we want to create greater opportunity inland. We are concerned about property tax values, but that’s almost secondary, because the desirability of the town has more to do with a sense of place than the value of any certain property.”

Relocating the buildings closer to the street would decrease the unwelcoming expanses of concrete that allow rain to run in torrents downhill, picking up pollution and detritus as this stormwater drains to Narragansett Bay, according to town officials.

They said supplemental public transportation would reduce traffic and provide better mobility for those without a car. A greater proximity of services would allow increased pedestrianism and bicycling, all of which are proven environmental saviors.

“Warren is the smallest town in the smallest county in the smallest state. Twenty-five percent is water already, and the average elevation is seven feet. So potentially in 50 years, two-thirds of our town could be underwater,” said Bob Rulli, the town’s director of planning and community development. “I don’t say that to scare people. It’s just reality, and it’s something we need to plan for. … I’m trying to be proactive.

“The buyout piece will take time, but I would rather start now and plan now than wait for a disaster to happen. I don’t want reckless development; I want to reallocate resources and have people think differently about what the impact of this could be.”

The plan tackles multiple protracted concerns, from environmental to societal. Rulli said the town is at the beginning stages of this 10- to 20-year project, which complements the revamping of the town’s comprehensive plan.

Rulli first proposed the idea to the Town Council in February, and received an economic feasibility grant from the Environmental Protection Agency in August to hire a consultant for flood-mitigation research.

He and Michaud have been working on this together, gauging interest among Metacom Avenue businesses such as Ocean State Job Lot that would shoulder the cost of redeveloping their own properties. They plan to undertake rezoning in the first few months of next year, with approval of the plan expected later in 2021.

“It’s really a mosaic. If you look at one tile, and then pull back, all the tiles create an image. That’s my approach to economic development and resiliency melding together,” Rulli said. “The ability to redevelop Metacom and provide better access to public transit … is a model for smart development and smart growth.”

A white paper published last year in the journal Science presented a “case for strategic and managed climate retreat.”

“Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat — moving people and assets out of harm’s way — but why, where, when, and how they will retreat,” wrote the paper’s authors. “By reconceptualizing retreat as a set of tools used to achieve societal goals, communities and nations gain additional adaptation options and a better chance of choosing the actions most likely to help their communities thrive.”

Flood map of Warren, R.I.
Mapping by the Coastal Resources Management Council projects the extent of the impact of 2 feet of sea-level rise and 100-year storm events. The areas shaded in blue are flooded.

Warren is surrounded by tidal rivers and bays, including Belcher Cove, the Warren and Kickemuit rivers, and Narragansett and Mount Hope bays. Since the town’s topography is flat and low, it’s vulnerable to coastal storms, especially when mixed with high and king tides, which already cause flooding. Meanwhile, reverse stormwater travels inland through underground systems and floods other areas.

Michaud said service-oriented businesses such as Warren Auto Body and JJ’s Cleansers are experiencing this problem now. She noted that the problem will only escalate as waters rise and more intense and frequent storms arrive. She said tidal gates mitigate this reverse-flow issue in the short term, and that the town is working with the Coastal Resources Management Council to better assess what conditions will be when sea-level rise becomes more evident.

Town Council president and Water Street business owner Keri Cronin is an advocate of the Market to Metacom initiative. Though her boutique hasn’t experienced flooding, she recognizes the precarious position that Market Street businesses are in, that their options are limited because they are a community surrounded by water. She said there is a need for pragmatism.

“The loss could be incalculable. There are so many different aspects. There is the potential loss of small business, which is huge. There is potential loss of homes, the environmental issues, and Belcher’s Cove encroaching on Market Street and Jamiel’s Park, which are a huge recreational value to our community,” Cronin said. “From a monetary standpoint, I can’t even imagine what that (loss) number would be. Then you add the personal impact to people and families; how do you even put a price tag on it?”

She noted that the redevelopment plan would address the town’s real issue of insufficient workforce housing and create a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly corridor.

“With forward-thinking ideas, and responding to the climate, at first they can seem overwhelming and the cost attached can seem so high. But here, the cost would be even higher if we didn’t think in these terms and make these bold decisions,” Cronin said. “I do think people will get on board. I don’t think it’s a slam dunk — with anything that’s innovative and bold, changing the way things have always been done, it takes time to flesh out. But I do think this will take us forward.”

The council president said there will be ample opportunity for the public to share input at meetings in the coming months, where budgets and timelines will be further developed.

“Retreat is hard to do and even harder to do well, for many reasons,” according to the 2019 white paper published in Science. “Short-term economic gains of coastal development; subsidized insurance rates and disaster recovery costs; misaligned incentives between residents, local officials, and national governments; imperfect risk perceptions; place attachment; and preference for the status quo. A reconceptualization could make strategic, managed retreat an efficient and equitable adaptation option.”

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  1. I wish everyone in the country would take this as seriously as the officials in Warren do. I wish the State of RI was paying more attention. For all the hub bub about resurrecting the economy after the pandemic, it is obvious that the only path forward is one that is much more ecologically focused and based on justice and equity. This is a baby step in that direction

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