Ready Or Not: South County Beach Community Continues To Retreat As Ocean Creeps Inland

Jun 19, 2018

From the rocks at the ocean's edge on Roy Carpenter's Beach, it's just a short walk up to the cottages. 

"There’s 21 houses total, 11 in this row and 10 in this row," Landowner Robert Thoresen said as he headed toward the first two rows on the left side of the property. 

The cottages in these rows are in a prime oceanfront location, but they won't be here for long. 

Within the next two years, they will be moved about a quarter mile inland, because the ocean is creeping in closer and closer every year. 

Thoresen's family cottage in the front row on the left side of the property has an ocean view, but that won't be the case within the next two years after the family moves the first two rows to the back of the lot.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

Thoresen, who is Roy Carpenter’s great-grandson, remembers 25 years ago there was a lot more real estate between these cottages and the beach.

"You could probably park six cars end-to-end in front of this deck going back this way, then there was a section of gravel parking lot that you could park two cars nose to nose, then there was a two lane road, then there was another gravel parking lot," he said.

Now, there’s none of that. There’s just a row of sand dunes, then the beach and the ocean. 

Thoresen isn’t the only one who’s noticed the change in this area.

A study by The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council found the water’s edge at Matunuck Beach, the beach right next to Roy Carpenter's, had moved almost 300 feet inland between 1950 and 2014.

“I mean eventually this place is going to be underwater. It’s not if, it’s when," Thoresen said.

When Roy Carpenter owned this lot, it was a place where beachgoers paid to park their cars. Then, in the 1930s, it evolved into a neighborhood where people built cottages to spend their summers. Today, the beach is home to 377 of them.

 

This cottage will be an oceanfront property after the two rows in front of it are moved about a quarter mile inland. This is the second time the Thoresen's and Carpenter's will move cottages back to escape the rising sea.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

Kevin McCloskey’s father bought one back in 1959 when McCloskey was a kid. He remembers being a teenager and working on the beach as a "Roy Boy."

"Roy Boys" kept the beach in tip-top shape cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash, but you weren’t official until you were initiated by the others.

“They’d make a mixture of trash and at the end they’d get the guy in the back and they’d pin him down and they’d throw all the stuff on them and it was an honor," McCloskey said, laughing afterward.

An honor that sounds a little dubious, but for McCloskey, being a "Roy Boy" is his fondest memory of the beach. McCloskey has spent every summer here, and he’s seen it change over time.

 

Kevin McCloskey holds up photos from the late 80s. Community members gathered for a party on a portion of beach that is now underwater.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

Roy Carpenter's Beach has one of the highest erosion rates in the state because of its geographical location. Extra wave energy is focused here during major storm events, and that's a big problem since storms couple with sea level rise make erosion worse.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy damaged some cottages, and Thoresen and the Carpenter family decided it was time to take action.

They moved two rows of cottages to the back of the beach, and McCloskey’s was one of them. Now, instead of an ocean view, he looks out into cornfields, but he said that doesn’t bother him.

"I’m looking at the same wind that was bouncing off the water that was bouncing off the hay or the corn, it’s just as beautiful," McCloskey said.

However, moving cottages farther away from the ocean significantly reduces their resale value, and other cottage owners don’t agree with the decision to retreat. They’ve accused Thoresen of not trying hard enough to protect their investment.

 

McCloskey points to his cottage with the tan roof. This is when it was in its old location in the second row on the right. McCloskey said now, the water's edge is up to where his cottage used to be.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

A suggested alternative was to build a seawall, but that can cause other problems.

Seawalls can leave the beach more vulnerable because the sand doesn’t have any room to move inland during storms, and can get washed away.

Thoresen said his family’s goal is to try to keep the land the way it’s been for as long as they possibly can.

"I realize we won’t make everyone happy, but everything we do we do for what we think is the best for everyone," Thoresen said. "So, it might not be good for row one, but we can’t look at it like that, we have to look at it as what is good for hopefully everyone as a whole."

 

Robert Thoresen looks out onto Roy Carpenter's Beach in late April.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

At Roy Carpenter's Beach, retreating is the plan for now, and although no one knows for sure what the future holds for the cottages, McCloskey isn’t letting that change his summer plans.

"You know what you got and you enjoy what you got for as long as you got it," he said.

Last year, Governor Gina Raimondo appointed the state’s first ever Chief Resiliency Officer to develop a statewide plan to better-prepare for the rising sea.

The Coastal Resources Management Council has also prepared maps and other resources for residents and municipalities to understand how sea level rise, coastal erosion and storm surge could impact properties.

The state is reacting to predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that in the worst case scenario, Rhode Island could see a foot of sea level rise in less than 20 years.

If a 100-year storm hits under those conditions, that could leave more than 16,000 residential buildings vulnerable to damage, and most of the properties along the shoreline can’t retreat like the cottages at Roy Carpenter’s Beach.