Planned Seawall Faces Delays, Hurdles

Gwyneth K. Shaw PhotoJan Ellen Spiegel/CT Mirror PhotoA longstanding and controversial request to build a 500-foot-long seawall along Morris Cove, approved as infrastructure funding, could be years away from implementation. The project faces serious hurdles that could make meeting grant-imposed deadlines a race with the clock.

Morris Cove is one of the most high-profile projects in a group of projects approved for federal recovery money and still awaiting funds nearly two years after storm Sandy sacked the Connecticut coast, a shoreline still disheveled from a pounding by Tropical Storm Irene a year earlier.

Officially known as the East Shore Erosion Control Project because of its location along the east shore of New Haven Harbor, the seawall is scheduled receive nearly $2 million—half awarded in the July announcement and the other half already okayed from the next funding block of $66 million.  Some $30 million of the second-round of funding will go toward infrastructure, while the first round only allotted $4 million out of requests for funding totaling $18 million.

The Morris Cove funding comes more than a decade after residents began asking for a seawall – long before Irene or Sandy hit.

Among them is David Kronberg, a 46-year resident whose home still sports the remnants of a destroyed deck and other damage – all largely the way Sandy left it two years ago.

A low jersey barrier installed temporarily by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection about a year-and-a-half ago is already showing signs of damage. Waves that reach it during high tides have also piled sand behind the barrier to within inches of the top.

“If we get a northwest wind it’ll come over,” Kronberg said of the water.  He was speaking on a still, sunny morning that gave no indication of being smack in the middle of hurricane season.

When he moved onto the street some 35 to 40 years ago, there was an ample beach that was home to many family volleyball games, he told officials who toured his neighborhood following Tropical Storm Irene. Over the years, the beach has receded. The high tide now leaves barely any sand showing behind his house.

About a dozen homes north of Kronberg’s have built illegal walls and bulkheads to connect to a legal wall built along Nathan Hale Park in the early 1980s. Those homes have no beach left. Even at low tide, the water now laps at their walls, unlike years ago when Kronberg said he used to be able to walk all the way up to the park.

“Pretty much at low tide you could,” he said.

Coastal geologists generally do not favor seawalls, citing them for such beach loss when waves have nowhere to deposit sand that they naturally move. The geologists also blame seawalls for increased erosion due to amplification of wave energy by the hardened structure. Concerns like these stalled out the most serious proposal for a seawall along Morris Cove offered in 2000. The idea was finally abandoned in 2006 when the then Department of Environmental Protection would not approve it.

The new proposal is for a 500-foot long, 10-foot high steel sheet seawall to be built behind 10 homes on Townsend Ave., where these Morris Cove homes officially are. The wall would run from Kronberg’s house north with most of the wall replacing the illegal ones.

But several homes south of Kronberg’s would remain unprotected and there’s no telling what that will mean as federal and state agencies begin their review and potential revision of the proposal – a process that could take years against a completion deadline of March 19, 2019.

“There’s too many questions between here and there,” said Joe Krupa, the municipal civil engineer in New Haven overseeing the project. He said he couldn’t begin to estimate the timing, even though the application required estimates. “There are a lot of open-ended questions with this project yet.”

A big one is whether a wall in one location would cause problems elsewhere such as damaging other homes and portions of beach or by increasing erosion that creates drainage problems elsewhere.

There are concerns about what would happen to water during storm surges with a wall in the way. Generally that water heads for dunes between homes and can potentially flood onto Townsend Ave., which along with a large area that stretches all the way to Tweed Airport, is low-lying. This is a key reason the city has viewed the seawall as a necessary community project even though it would be on private property. Block grant requirements are that projects have a public benefit.

And then there’s the engineering: how to anchor the seawall it into sand; what engineers will find once they start digging; and literally how to coordinate it.

“The tide already comes up three feet on the [existing] wall,” said Krupa. “Either we have to come in by barge and work only during high tide, or come in on land and can only work a few hours.”

But the clock will start ticking long before any digging begins. The Army Corps of Engineers signoff is first in line, and nothing starts without them. The Corps recently revived the review it began, but never completed, of the aborted 2000 proposal. A letter outlining what needs to be done as part of a feasibility study was sent to New Haven last week.

That study, once it starts, generally takes 12 to 18 months, said Michael Riccio, the Corps project manager. Aside from all the environmental consequences from the impact on fish habitat to sand migration and erosion, the Corps needs to be clear that a public benefit is served and that the problems the project is solving were caused by Sandy – since that’s what the funding source is for. Several alternatives need to be considered. And the financial rules of who pays for what have to be met.

But it’s still possible the Corps could determine the project is not feasible.

“That is possible,” Riccio said. “It’s one of the key things we want to work out with the city early on in the process.”

Assuming Army Corps signs off, DEEP still needs to approve the project. No fan of seawalls, the department has been disinclined to approve new ones, though Morris Cove falls into a category of new walls that are permitted because they protect occupied structures built before 1980.

“Conceptually we’re OK with that. It looked like something we could possibly approve,” said Brian Thompson, DEEP’s director of the Office of Long Island Sound Programs of New Haven’s new proposal. “Effectively the area is already hardened. It may not be continuous, but it’s close to the entire area.”

That was good news to Kronberg. “I think what happened is they realized there’s a potential disaster problem sitting here just waiting to hit,” he said. “If the dune does get compromised, God only knows how much damage it’s going to do on Townsend Ave. and how deep the water will get.

And then it would have to be built. Were the project to be extremely delayed or scuttled, the funds can be reallocated up to a point. Otherwise it’s a use it or lose it situation.

“It would be a shame for us to give back any funds to the federal government,” said Mia Delaire, the project manager for CDBG [federal Community Development Block Grant] disaster recovery programs as part of the state Department of Housing.

Sediment Removal

Timing is not the issue with the $415,000 planning grant awarded to Shoreline Shellfish, LLC, a private enterprise founded by Daniel Snyder, a medical doctor formerly affiliated with Yale who now focuses on marine biology.

His proposal is to design, fabricate and test equipment and an underwater process for removing marine sediment known as sapropel, inserting it into huge geotextile tubes. The tubes, made of special high strength fabrics, hold in sediment or other substances. They are often used for shoreline stabilization and other marine purposes.

While Snyder would like to see sapropel-filled tubes used to create bases for oyster reefs that serve as shoreline resiliency barriers, his proposal will not build them. In fact it’s not clear the process he wants to test will actually work.

That opens questions about whether the proposal meets the guidelines for a CDBG grant, since a public benefit is not guaranteed.

“The application submitted to us was clearly one for a planning activity associated with potential resiliency for the Connecticut shoreline,” said Mike Santoro, the community development specialist with the state Department of Housing. He said the committee evaluating the proposal felt it met the definition of urgent need under CDBG parameters – even though no mitigation reef will be built.

“We felt the project deserved to receive a planning grant.”

This story originally appeared in the CT Mirror.

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posted by: Steve NH on August 5, 2014  12:41pm

The eminent danger these folks refer to has been self imposed as they have built structures closer to the water. The facts are that beaches have been wiped out because the seawalls and jettys built over the years have changed the sand flow and dragged/scalloped the sand to the other end of the beach area. Who is going to pay for the next so called ‘Save a few private homes at the expense of everbody else”. I use the public beach often and know if the seawalls are built it will take all the existing beach away to. How about pull your additions back. No insurance policy would cover the damage to the homes that are noted in the article. They are not part of the main structure as defined in Flood Insurance Programs and if caused by water rising the Home Owners Insurance would not cover so why should the taxpayers cover it. There are more things to be consider when determining the public good.

posted by: HewNaven on August 5, 2014  1:11pm

You want Erosion Control and rising-seas mitigation? Don’t build so close to the water, Dummies!

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on August 5, 2014  1:18pm

Not for nothing, powerbroker Anthony Avallone lives three houses north of the guy Kronberg. Maybe the new seawall should be named after him.

Must be kind of nice to wield that sort of influence.

posted by: David Backeberg on August 5, 2014  3:54pm

We learned a lot from New Jersey during Sandy, and the best thing we learned is that sand dunes are better protection than seawalls. During a major storm, and seawalls either got undermined and collapsed, or the water was so high the waves overtopped them and destroyed the houses anyway.

The best defenses are the natural defenses: large piles of sand, ideally with dune vegetation to hold it in place, naturally deposited by the waves. The second best defenses are large piles of sand, created by humans that act almost as well as the sand naturally deposited by waves. In a storm, the sand *absorbs* the energy from the waves, and sends some water into the ground rather than back out to sea. In a storm, the seawalls gets pummelled by water, absorbs no water, and either collapsed, or creates turbulence that destroys something else next to the seawall.

If there’s really a budget for this, the best way to spend it would be to buy the landowners out, and put a big fake sand dune where the houses used to be. The ocean is rising, and 300 years all of that area is going to be underwater. Imagine if in the next storm, all we do is rebuild a dune instead of asking for a new seawall and new houses.

posted by: Rob Smuts on August 5, 2014  4:07pm

When I was CAO, the City fought for this seawall not for these homes (though as older homes built with ample beach that are now threatened because currents have changed due to some unknown but likely human-caused action, I could make a case for them), but because the land they sit on is a natural berm that protects over a hundred homes at lower elevations behind them. It is a good question whether any of those homes should have been allowed in the first place, but they exist now and the City has an obligation to protect them. We will see this kind of decision faced in other parts of New Haven and thousands of other cities due to climate change. Sometimes, we will probably need to retreat and this country will have to wrestle with the cost/benefit balance to guide those decisions. In this case, the question is a couple hundred thousand to solidify the protection of over a hundred homes below elevation 12’ (the lowest elevation protected by the proposed seawall) for maybe 25 years before climate change required abandonment or a different solution. Clearly worth it - the property taxes on all the houses that benefit would pay for it in two or three years even if you reduce it purely to economics.

posted by: Steve NH on August 5, 2014  4:49pm

Re Rob Smuts’s post
Rob what would you suggest that be done to avoid damage to other property and sandy beach front that will be destroyed if this ‘Seawall” is put in place. This is a short term salvage effort for a group of homes that decided to build out over the natural berm. They built on it and OVER it. The damage Mr Kronberg claims is to a rotted old shed 20 ft from his home, the damgage Mr Sacco claims are to extension added to his house top to bottom that could be considered out of code and have extend from his home 12FT closer to the water than the main house (reference the pictures). Why should everyone else in your example be on the hook for a “couple of hundred thousand dollars” that money from the Federal Government is also our Tax Dollars These seawalls could wipe out the beachfront at Anthony’s Oceanview and the public beach and all the homes that did not violate the natural berm. Your comments focus on the few who expect the rest to accept the consequences their favored status.

posted by: Don in New Haven on August 5, 2014  6:00pm

Yes, the seawall continues to erode the beaches in Morris Cove.

However, the primary cause of beach erosion in Morris Cove was the removal of excessive amounts of fill to satisfy I95 construction demands during the 1950s.

The beautiful Morris Cove beaches I saw when I came to Yale in 1958 later slid into those deep holes dug in Morris Cove to help construct I95. This underwater topographical change made the currents stronger as they moved sand from the beaches to the holes.

Those deep holes should be filled before any new seawall is constructed. Please address this solution to the Corps of Engineers.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on August 6, 2014  1:50am

The area where these 10 homes are located is best described by Rob Smuts. Loss of the original natural burm that these homes rest on has, and continues to act as “dike” which obstructs the flow of the high tides to proceed through to the area of the aiport. In this area are many homes(most over 60 years old, some as much as a hundred years in age), a state road, a firehouse, businesses, all part of a long standing community; NOT something that was imposed on the natural conditions of Morris Cove yesterday. If anything is the cause of this degredation, it has been the commercial corruption of the actual cove. Reference was made to the removal of fill to use in the construction of I-95. This was done over 60 years ago, with almost no studies of the long term effects to the shoreline or real science that could predict the outcome of changing the currents. Or the illegal demolition of a stone pier near the head of the eastern end of the cove, by Lighthouse Park. No study was done, no post destruction study was conducted, and no one was held liable, even though this accelerated the deterioration of the beach and burn around the ten homes in question, by altering the northwestern currents that caused the greatest erosion. It is in the best interest of all the residents of Morris cove, and anyone who has or continues to drive down to Lighthouse Park, to finally stop the politics (particularly from DEEP), and get this fixed.

posted by: robn on August 6, 2014  6:42am

The third paragraph discussing costs is confusing. Could the author please distinguish between total federal grants and the $ that are actually earmarked for this project? Is it $2M, $4M, $6M, $18M, or $30M?

posted by: Don in New Haven on August 6, 2014  3:00pm

Yes, JustAnotherTaxPayer, over 60 years have passed since digging the massive hole in Morris Cove came to an end.

However, the insatiable appetite of that hole has not been satisfied even after eating all of the beautiful beaches of the Cove so long ago. No seawall can appease the hole and it will continue to eat until the hole is filled.

The best action is to fill the hole and rebuild the beaches. Ask those who sail around the cove to measure the size and depth of that hole. You may be surprised.

posted by: JanEllenS on August 7, 2014  10:35am

On the $$ question. The total project (at this point) is $1.9 million. Half was okayed in the funding announced July 1. The other half is already approved in a future funding block that has not been announced yet. In fact the submission deadline is still a week away. The $2 mil price tag is one that dates to the DeStefano admin.