NEWPORT, R.I. — In the litany of devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy’s terrible force, the collapse of an approximately 25-foot stretch of sidewalk along the rocky shore of Rhode Island would, at first glance, seem to be a speck unworthy of attention.
But this is Newport, and that damaged path is part of the renowned Cliff Walk, which wends its way between the spectacular ocean views and the fabled mansions that lure tourists from across the globe to the tip of Aquidneck Island. Not only that: The waves that crash off the portion of the cliff near Ruggles Avenue are considered to be among the best in New England for surfing.
For weeks, the city has seen a growing swell of opposition to a state proposal to repair the walk in a way that residents said could have permanently altered the break of the waves, threatened undersea life, ruined the surfing, and harshed everyone’s mellow.
“Ruggles is a natural playground; it shouldn’t be destroyed,” Sid Abruzzi, owner of the Water Brothers surf shop in Newport, told a packed town meeting Wednesday night. There, to thunderous applause, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the state not to damage the surfing spot.
On Friday, the outcry turned to cries of satisfaction. After a marathon meeting with residents, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation abandoned its proposal to effectively thicken the sea wall with 25 feet of armor stone with the help of two temporary jetties that would have jutted 200 feet out into the Atlantic, according to officials who attended the meeting.
“That idea was kind of shot down,” said state Representative Peter F. Martin.
“Ruggles is saved,” Abruzzi said on Friday.
Martin said the residents and state officials began studying how to repair the wall without affecting the unique features of the shoreline that allow surfers to ride 10-to-20-foot waves stirred up by storms. The waves break in such a way that surfers can end their ride, or “kick out,” a safe distance from the rocky shore.
Department of Transportation officials could not be reached for comment late Friday.
No one suggests Newport’s problem is anywhere near the scale of the other damage caused by Sandy, which killed at least 147 people and destroyed huge swaths of coastline in New York and New Jersey.
But the storm inflicted enough damage on the Cliff Walk to require some emergency repairs — that everyone agrees on. The 3.5 mile path is one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions.
What is also true is that in a town where maritime grandeur is a prime lure, surf is sacrosanct.
“What would we call the Breakers if we didn’t have the surf?” quipped City Councilor Justin McLaughlin, referring to one of the iconic mansions. “The Building?”
The trick to repairing the Cliff Walk is access. Roads are too narrow and too far from the damaged sections for construction equipment. A private owner has denied use of his land, which abuts the damaged section of the walk near Ruggles Avenue. Transportation officials had argued that the jetties were the easiest and quickest way to get equipment in place to make the fixes, which the state estimated in January would cost $8 million.
Department of Transportation officials have acknowledged that they may have underestimated the importance the Ruggles surf break holds in Newport.
“I think it’s safe to say that we were not aware of the sensitivity surrounding this particular location,” Robert Smith, deputy chief engineer, said Wednesday.
The jetties, even if they were in place only for a few weeks, would have almost certainly altered the break of the waves, and most likely changed currents and deposited sediment, said Richard Murray, a oceanography professor at Boston University. If the project dragged on longer, the effect could have persisted even if the jetties were removed, he said.
“It would be awfully hard to remove the blocks at the bottom which are going to be buried in sediment,” Murray said. “Then you’ve got permanent change.”
Dave McLaughlin, Justin McLaughlin’s son and the cofounder of Clean Ocean Access, a grass-roots environmental group that had gathered more than 6,000 signatures from 49 states to get the state to reconsider its proposed fixes, said the prime surfing grounds are only one byproduct of the shoreline near Ruggles Avenue. The hard bottom sea floor is a unique marine habitat, he said, and the area is used for fishing and swimming. The wall, he said, would have damaged that shoreline and made access difficult.
Abruzzi and other residents say the Cliff Walk needs only localized repairs. The sea wall at the base of the collapsed section, they say, is still solid after weathering decades of storms. Traveled for centuries before local landowners began to develop it into a more permanent passageway in the late 19th century, the walk sits atop 300-million-year-old rock.
“The cliff is not coming down,” said Abruzzi.
The collapse of the sidewalk, said Martin Casey, a local builder, is more likely a result of poor construction and maintenance of the walkway itself.
“If maintenance were given more attention, it wouldn’t get into a state of disrepair,” Casey said at Wednesday night’s meeting.
The ultimate decision on the next stages of the project will be made by the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council, whose members also had concerns about the necessity of the temporary jetties, said spokeswoman Laura Dwyer.
For now, Newport residents are savoring the success of their effort.
“This has really been a fantastic experience,” said Justin McLaughlin, the city councilor. “This is government in action.”
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