Ocean Mist owner Kevin Finnegan is once again arguing against the construction of a 202-foot sheet pile seawall that the town of South Kingstown has received permission to build along Matunuck Beach Road, just west of his bar.
He has written an opinion piece against it, and a new online petition began circulating last week urging people to “Protect Matunuck,” with links to protectmatunuck.com, a website that urges lobbying against the wall.
Town Manager Stephen A. Alfred said Finnegan’s claims are “misleading.” Finnegan did not return multiple calls for comment by the Independent.
“I am writing to urge you to stop your plans to place a steel wall at the curb on Matunuck Beach Road,” reads the most recent petition, signed by 3,128 people as of Wednesday morning, that is aimed at South Kingstown Town councilors. “Experts agree that your plan negatively impacts the businesses on Matunuck Beach Road that serve as the economic engine for Matunuck. I know that alternatives exist which will protect the road, access to the water lines underneath the road, businesses and homes. I know that walls have been repaired and improved upon by the town all along the shoreline of Matunuck. Let’s work together to protect Matunuck.”
“Protect Matunuck has picked up on Kevin’s [original] petition,” said Kate Coyne-McCoy, who created Protect Matunuck. “We’re working pretty aggressively to get the town to reconsider the beginning of the wall installation, which is currently slated for September. Kevin submitted plans to the town. His plan has always been to restore the historic wall [along the former Mary Carpenter’s property next door to the Ocean Mist, now town-owned] that has worked. There’s no logical reason that the town could not do that on the land formerly owned by Mary Carpenter. Kevin is willing to buy that land and pay for the wall.”
Protect Matunuck is not registered as a corporation with the Secretary of State, nor as a lobbying group with the state Board of Elections. Coyne-McCoy said it is the work of several Matunuck businesses and landowners.
South Kingstown officials maintain the land-side wall is needed to prevent Matunuck Beach Road from being compromised by storms and erosion; to protect the 240 homes that lie to the east of its proposed location; and to protect an additional 1,600 homes serviced by a water main that runs under the road.
The petition has gained attention online via social media platforms, and in statewide media. So has a similar petition, originally circulated in June 2014, in advance of a June 24, 2014 state Coastal Resources Management Council hearing. The town sought CRMC approval for the wall in 2011, and received it in 2012. Finnegan appealed to Superior Court. In 2014, Judge Stephen Nugent upheld the decision, rejecting all but one of Finnegan’s arguments. He remanded a single issue to CRMC, telling them to clarify how the town took reasonable steps to mitigate the environmental impacts of the project, something he felt was lacking in the approval. During that June 2014 hearing, CRMC reviewed and reapproved that item.
Finnegan appealed again, and Nugent again rejected his arguments, in a May 8, 2015 decision. Finnegan has also filed a civil lawsuit contending his personal property rights have been violated. Construction was slated to begin late last year, but was put on hold while litigation was pending. Alfred said construction is slated to begin in the fall. The town wall is projected to cost $1.6 million and will be paid for by state Department of Transportation funds.
The reappearance of the 2014 petition has led to confusion over the June 24 date. Last week, Dennis Moffit Painting in Peace Dale painted its side wall with the Protect Matunuck logo, prominently displaying the June 24 date. Alfred, CRMC officials and William Landry, Finnegan’s attorney, said they have no knowledge of a June 24, 2015 meeting or public hearing on the project.
This week, Finnegan’s opinion piece, “Town could doom landmark restaurant,” appeared in the Providence Journal. In it, he said he gave the town an alternative plan, which he is willing to fund at a personal expense of $2 million.
“The town’s responsibility is health and safety for those 240 residential structures that are east of the Ocean Mist,” Alfred said, in an interview. “The town has indicated to Mr. Finnegan that we would like to work with him in advance of the wall’s installation to protect his building ... He has refused to cooperate or provide us with permission to provide the structural support or the preconstruction instruments.”
In a “Frequently Asked Questions,” section of protectmatu nuck.com, details of the “alternative plan” are discussed.
“Kevin Finnegan, owner of the Ocean Mist engaged the services at his own expense of GZA (experts in erosion and geology) and attorneys,” the website reads. “Together they created a plan, which would repair the existing wall on Mary Carpenter’s land. This plan was submitted to the town manager. Kevin Finnegan is willing to PAY for the repair and maintenance of the wall.”
The so-called Mary Carpenter land has a small-stone revetment protecting it from the ocean. After Carpenter died, the town purchased that property as part of the sea wall construction project.
“I think Mr. Finnegan’s comments are misleading,” Alfred said. “In February of 2014, Mr. Finnegan met with town staff and CRMC staff, and [Finnegan’s] engineer to review a preliminary design plan for reconstruction of the existing historic revetment. He was told at that time by the staff of Coastal Resources that the plan he had designed was inadequate to be able to protect the public right-of-way for several reasons. One, the size of the rocks would be too small to withstand ocean tide. Second, the elevation or height of the wall would be over-topped by any significant storm, which would jeopardize the town right-of-way. Finnegan has failed to take any further engineering action after February 2014 to demonstrate that any wall other than the sheet pile wall that would be a viable solution.”
Construction of a new sea wall on the ocean side would require CRMC approval, and likely U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval as well.
“We have not yet received any application from Mr. Finnegan, though he has come in a number of times to meet informally with our permit staff regarding his options,” said Laura Dwyer, CRMC information officer.
In an interview, Landry said Finnegan’s engineers are working on alternative solutions, but he would not comment further.
“In 1988, I purchased the Ocean Mist in Matunuck as a young, eager entrepreneur,” Finnegan wrote in his op-ed. “Although I knew the day might come when the ultimate storm could destroy the iconic building, I never imagined it would be bureaucracy, government and politics that could actually cause the demise of the Ocean Mist. If the town of South Kingstown has its way, all of the jobs, the taxes, the economic infusion and traditions will soon be but a memory. South Kingstown intends to install a steel wall at the curbside immediately to the right of the Ocean Mist. The town’s plan acknowledges the detrimental impact the wall will have on the Ocean Mist. Experts agree there are alternatives and that the proposed steel wall will not be effective.”
“The town has acknowledged that whether any wall is constructed or no actions are taken, the Ocean Mist and all other seaward structures on Matunuck Beach Road are in jeopardy,” Alfred said. “A great deal of the erosion acceleration that occurred on the property also was impacted based on the illegal actions that Finnegan took in providing structural enhancements under the building. Those have been documented violations with Coastal Resources.”
Alfred is referring to what is commonly dubbed “Fort Ticonderoga,” a creosote wall Finnegan built under his building without the knowledge or approval of CRMC. The state council has said that wall must be removed before any alternative erosion prevention measures can be attempted in the area, a violation notice was issued, and an enforcement hearing is pending.
“As with all of the property owners down there with violations, we have given them until the end of June to apply under the experimental regulations, and if we do not receive an application by then (this also applies to Mr. Finnegan), they go before the [CRMC]” Dwyer said. “In his case, he would be scheduled for the July 28 Council meeting, unless we get an application by the end of this month.”
Landry said a hearing is scheduled July 28 to address “a petition of enforcement matter by CRMC, a couple of year-old notices of violation.”