State of the Beach/State Reports/RI/Shoreline Structures

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Rhode Island Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access86
Water Quality64
Beach Erosion8-
Erosion Response-7
Beach Fill5-
Shoreline Structures 6 2
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas48
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Rhode Island state policy prohibits the construction of new hardened structures on barriers, headlands, and other coastal features abutting Type 1 waters, and on barriers and coastal wetlands anywhere in the state. Type 1 waters are defined as areas that are unsuitable for structures due to their exposure to severe wave action, flooding, and erosion, or areas adjacent to wildlife refuges and conservation areas. All land with open ocean exposure falls into this category. The result of these policies is to prohibit shoreline armoring along greater that 75% of the coast, including most beach areas.

In addition, the applicant must exhaust all reasonable and practical alternatives, including the relocation of the structure and non-structural shoreline protection measures (RICRMP 300.7.B.3).

Building setbacks are the preferred method of protecting private property. In emergencies, CRMC allows non-structural shoreline protection that is designed to enhance beach recovery. They have also allowed "experimental" technologies in emergencies, but with required monitoring. CMRC believes the present policies benefit both private property owners and the general public.[1]

Chapter 46-23 of the General Laws of Rhode Island is the Coastal Zone Management Program's enabling legislation. Section 300.7 of the Coastal Resources Management Plan also addresses shoreline structures.

Information regarding prohibitions on armoring is detailed in CRMC's 1995 Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Program (CRMP). More specific and detailed information for the South Shore of Rhode Island is in the 1999 Salt Pond Region Special Area Management Plan.

Section 300.7 of the CRMP specifies that applicants for the installation of shoreline structures must demonstrate that:

  • An erosion hazard exists and the proposed structure has a reasonable probability of controlling that erosion
  • Non-structural shoreline protection has not worked in the past
  • There are no practical alternatives such as building relocation
  • The structure is not likely to increase erosion at adjacent areas

Hardened structures can be required to be removed if they are greater than 50% destroyed. CRMC prohibits the use of geotubes. Sand bag revetments are allowed in emergencies and are typically not required to be removed. The sand bag revetments must be designed to dissipate wave energy for sand deposition over the revetment.[2]

Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Program prohibits new structural shoreline protection methods on barriers classified as undeveloped, moderately developed and developed and in Type 1 waters. (RICRMP 300.7D)

In areas where shoreline structures are an option, Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Program states:

Applicants for structural shoreline protection measures to control erosion shall, on the basis of sound professional information, demonstrate in writing all of the following:

a. an erosion hazard exists due to natural erosion processes and the proposed structure has a reasonable probability of controlling this erosion problem;
b. nonstructural shoreline protection has not worked in the past or will not work in the future because these methods are not suitable for the present site conditions;
c. there are no practical or reasonable alternatives to the proposed activity such as the relocation of structures that mitigate the need for structural shoreline protection;
d. the proposed structure is not likely to increase erosion in adjacent areas;
e. the proposed structure is an appropriate solution to the erosion problem considering such things as the long term erosion rate in the area, the likely effects of storms and hurricanes, and the stability of the shoreline on either side of the project;
f. describe the long-term maintenance program for the facility including financial commitments to pay for said maintenance; and,
g. new breakwaters, jetties, bulkheads, revetments, and seawalls shall be designed and certified by a registered professional engineer

Section 300.7.B states that all reasonable and practical alternatives, including but not limited to, the relocation of the structure and nonstructural shoreline protection methods are exhausted before a shoreline structure is permitted.

Section 300.7.B states that non-structural methods for controlling erosion are favored. Non-structural methods include the use of vegetation and beach nourishment.

The Salt Pond Region: Special Area Management Plan defines the requirements for re-building after a storm event. The plan states that when a structure is destroyed greater than 50%, post-storm reconstruction shall follow all standards and policies for new development, including set-back requirements and building standards. The policy goes on to state that structures destroyed less than 50% need to file for a specific maintenance assent from the Coastal Management Program (RI Salt Pond Region SAMP, 950B.1).

In April 2011 the Coastal Resources Management Council issued a report on short-term and long-term alternatives to address erosion along Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown. This case illustrates the problems and limited options available to address coastal erosion when houses and associated infrastructure are built too close to an eroding shoreline. The report explores the possibility of allowing wooden bulkheads as a short-term solution, but offers the following assessment of long-term solutions:

"As detailed above and in great detail in the appendices, this is an existing erosion problem with very limited solutions that will prove satisfactory in the long run. It is a problem that is occurring across the country with greater frequency. Mr. Rick Murray who is a professor of earth science from Boston University and a Scituate, MA selectman said it best recently in the Boston Globe (4/3/11) “Not everything we love can be saved”. Coastal defense structures are very expensive, require constant maintenance, and significantly degrade the beach, public access, and benthic resources in the vicinity. Soft solutions are expensive and require significant amounts of maintenance. Beach nourishment projects are expensive and require a steady supply of compatible dredge projects. These dredge projects may have adverse impacts at the dredge location. Retreat is expensive, unacceptable to many waterfront owners and in many cases not practical. The common node here is that all of the solutions are expensive and don’t protect fully against storm surge and damage from a hurricane. This issue must be carefully debated at the state and local level as to how much should we pay for coastal shoreline defenses, particularly when the benefits are very local, and more importantly who should pay."

Installation of a steel pile wall along 675 feet of Matunuck Beach Road, from an empty lot near Mary Carpenter’s Drive past the Ocean Mist and Tara’s Joyce Family Pub, was proposed in November 2011. More on this from May 2012.

New regulations approved Oct. 7, 2013 by the R.I. Coastal Resource Management Council would allow a dozen eligible commercial and residential property owners on Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown and another 38 property owners on Atlantic Avenue in Westerly’s Misquamicut neighborhood to use experimental measures to prevent beach erosion. The rules do not recommend, endorse, limit or otherwise specify what new technologies or approaches might be used. As a result, property owners are left to do the research, collaborate with their neighbors and apply first for predetermination to see if their plans are feasible, and then for approval to go forward. The regulations are intended to permit temporary measures for up to three years, though successful initiatives could be renewed.


The Coastal Resources Management Program, Section 210.6B states that a 1978 survey of Narragansett Bay shoreline revealed that 25% of the shoreline is armored. Many of these structures were built in response to the 1954 Hurricane. This section recognized that shoreline structures have negative impacts on the appearance of the shore, interfere with public access and alter sand processes along the shore.

The CRMC and the Department of Geosciences mapped the shoreline structures along Washington County’s shorelines. Approximately 19% of the shoreline here was found to be armored. Washington County includes the Rhode Island’s South Shore, the open ocean coastline and part of Narragansett Bay.

The CMRC does have a draft map showing shoreline structures along the Rhode Island south shore and a permit application database, but it is not accessible on-line. They also have a summary table of the number of shorelines structure permits issued by year from 1997 through 2004, available by request. Cost information is retrievable on a project-by-project basis by reviewing construction estimates that are part of the permit applications.

Rhode Island is finishing up the Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan. They have mapped all the shoreline structures in Greenwich Bay. More than half of the shoreline is armored. Areas that are not armored are, for the most part, public parks and other open space.

According to Bernd-Cohen and Gordon (1999), the Rhode Island CRMC has had a computerized coastal permit-tracking system in place since 1987. This system was upgraded, and paper permit files dating back to 1971 are now included. The CRMC tracks permit data by activity type, but not by location (e.g., beach, bluff, or rocky shore). The CRMC is considering changing their system so it is able to identify the extent of permitted activity by resource area.

In Narragansett Bay, 25% of the shoreline is armored; along the south shore it is less than 25%.[3]

CMRC staff estimate that approximately 20% of the overall Rhode Island coastline is armored.[4]

Experimental and controversial beach protection barriers are being proposed for two stretches of South County beaches, including South Kingstown Town Beach, which was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Discussions between the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and South Kingstown planners resulted in a tentative agreement to allow unproven approaches to stop beach erosion, such as polyester-type bags filled with sand or stone. The use of stone and concrete barriers, such as jetties and rip-rap, will not be permitted. A public hearing on the proposed changes was scheduled for August 2013.

Portions of Matunuck Beach and the town beach have lost between 75 and 250 feet of shoreline in the past 75 years, according to the CRMC. Several hundred feet of beachfront were also wiped out at South Kingstown Town Beach during Hurricane Sandy. Work is underway to move the beach pavilion 200 feet inland. The town also received approval from the CRMC to build a 200-foot sheet-pile wall with concrete along Matunuck Beach Road. December 2016 update.

The following table shows the number of permits issued by CRMC for new hard structures, new "soft" structures, and repair of existing hard structures during the years 1997 through 2001.[5]

Year New Hard Structures New Soft Structures Repair of Hard Structures
2001 1 0 39
2000 1 1 39
1999 5 10 36
1998 4 29 40
1997 6 0 40

Additional information on "shoreline protection" projects in Rhode Island is available on the Website of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District. See Update Report for Rhode Island.

The Fiscal Year 2017 Civil Works Budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides $4.62 billion in gross discretionary funding for the Civil Works program. This budget lists proposed projects and the associated budget justification by state.


Janet Freedman, Coastal Geologist
Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council
Phone: (401) 783-3370

Dr. Jon C. Boothroyd
University of Rhode Island
Department of Geological Science
8 Ranger Road, Suite 2
Kingston, RI 02881
(401) 874-2191

Perception of Effectiveness

CRMC staff believes that existing policies are effective and strike a balance between private property protection and public use benefit. Shoreline armoring is effectively prohibited from most beach areas. Data show that at least 65% of all barrier beaches have had no new permitted development or shoreline stabilizations since 1971.

Public Education Program

The Education & Outreach section of CRMC's website provides access to many downloadable documents as well as links to other information resources for coastal issues.

Also see Guides and Reports.

Rhode Island has developed or made available a number of resource documents on Climate Change and Sea Level Rise.

RI Sea Grant in cooperation with scientists from the University of Rhode Island and other local institutions, provides assistance to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council to better understand the science and policy implications of sea level rise and climate change. This work includes supporting the development of sea level rise policy. RI Sea Grant's Climate Change in Rhode Island Web page has information on:

  • Climate Change & Human Behavior
  • Climate Change & Habitat Protection
  • Climate Change & Flood Awareness
  • Sea Level Rise Policy

Also see RI Sea Grant's Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth.


  1. Janet Freedman, CRMC. Surfrider 2002 State of the Beach survey response.
  2. Janet Freedman, CRMC. Surfrider 2002 State of the Beach survey response.
  3. Jill Bodnar, personal communication. April 2, 2001. Source: URI Geology Professor Jon Boothroyd
  4. Janet Freedman, CRMC. Surfrider 2002 State of the Beach survey response.
  5. Janet Freedman, CRMC. Surfrider 2002 State of the Beach survey response.

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