“Right now we have more questions than answers,” Fugate says. “What we have adopted is a skeleton that still needs to be fleshed out.”
While regulations for requiring new development to plan for 3 to 5 feet of sea level rise have not yet been implemented, Fugate says progress is being made. For instance, in July 2008 the state building commission adopted the International Building Code standards, which implement stricter flood zone requirements. These include a one-foot freeboard elevation and more stringent building requirements in special flood hazard areas along the coast.
Although there is still much work to be done to create policies and regulations to help the state mitigate impacts of sea level rise and climate change, Rhode Island was one of the first states to adopt policy related to sea level rise. Fugate says this is just the beginning of the council’s efforts to address climate change impacts.
A helping hand to put some regulatory meat on the coastal council’s policy bones is coming from the Metro Bay SAMP planning group, which worked to create specific polices for sea level rise in the Providence area that will also be recommended for state-wide implementation. “Looking at a specific area through the SAMP process helped us identify real issues,” Rubinoff says. “We’re a small state, so it’s easy for us to take some of these issues from one place and adapt it statewide.”
Among the SAMP planning group’s recommendations are more stringent building standards, flood ordinances, permitting processes, and best practices in coastal flood zones to reduce vulnerabilities to existing and future infrastructure. Other recommendations include more stringent building setbacks, monitoring, and requirements for stricter flood-zone standards.
The SAMP planning group also recommends incorporating low impact design standards for stormwater management to account for climate change considerations. Low impact design is an approach to land development that mimics nature to reduce runoff from storms, and promote groundwater infiltration. It includes practices such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and vegetated channels for storm water runoff.While Rhode Island coastal managers are proud of the progress they have made in addressing sea level rise and climate change, the challenge before them is daunting.
“The hardest thing that we have had to come to grips with is that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers out there,” Fugate says. “We’re going to have to learn to live with that for the time being.”
He adds, “We’ve made the choice to go forward now and try to adapt rather than wait for more information. If you wait for all the answers, you’re really placing your coastal population at risk.”
Another version of this article originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Coastal Services magazine.