• subtitle: Famed Rhode Island Surfbreak Threatened By Cliff Walk Repairs; Window For Surfer-Led Action Closing Soon

Written by  Nick McGregor
Tuesday, 4/02/13

Word emerged today from Newport, RI, that Ruggles, one of the most iconic pointbreaks on the East Coast, could be under threat from a proposed re-armoring and repair of the city’s popular 3.5-mile Cliff Walk. A public notice filed on March 5th by Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council, a coastal permitting authority, outlines the “emergency repairs,” which have been proposed by the Rhode Island Depart of Transportation and consist of “restoration of damage to the Cliff Walk resulting from the impact of Post Tropical Storm Sandy.”

The proposed project begins at The Breakers at Ruggles Avenue and continues to Bailey’s Beach at Bellevue Avenue and includes slope protection measures; repairs to structural walls and drainage; walkway and safety improvements; and installation of new decorative railings and landscaping. Most concerning for surfers, however, is the DOT’s desire to install permanent armor stone fill below the mean high water elevation at three different spots along the Cliff Walk.

“Basically what they want to do is build an armor stone jetty to abut the seawall and put in cement footings that will line all five breaks at Ruggles,” says Newport native, Original Water Brothers founder/owner, and Ruggles pioneer Sid Abruzzi. “The real problem is it will go out about 25 feet, creating a high-tide situation even at mid-tides and changing the flow of water. It’s just bad.”

Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t end there. As the CRMC Public Notice implies, “The most challenging aspect of this project is the construction access.” With hauling trucks, concrete trucks, and cranes just the tip of the mechanical iceberg, Abruzzi says that the millionaire owners of Newport’s famed oceanfront mansions don’t want to grant such high-traffic vehicular access. “So what [the DOT] has planned are up to four 200-foot by 40-foot jetties or ‘causeways’ that can accommodate barges at the end of them,” Abruzzi says. “The first one is smack dab in the middle of Ruggles, and the second one is smack dab in the middle of what we call In Front. Those will take up two of the major portions of the break at Ruggles.” (MORE BELOW THE PHOTOS)

What would that do to one of the East Coast’s best lineups — an aquatic stomping ground that Sid Abruzzi went to jail for in the early 1970s, eventually fighting the spot’s surfing restrictions all the way to the State Supreme Court so that New England surfers could legally access it? “Just building the armor stone jetty at the proposed width and height will change the break,” he says. “But those causeways — are you kidding me? There’s no sand out there; it’s all natural rock. If just the armor stone jetty is built, Ruggles will never be the same. If the causeways are also built, Ruggles as we know it is gone.”

So what can surfers do? Any protest against the proposed work must be filed in writing with the CRMC by Friday, April 5th in order to set up a public hearing. The Newport City Council has the controversial project on its docket for the next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, April 10th — expect that to be a heated evening. A petition is also currently circulating, and online furor over the proposed project looks to reach a fever pitch in the next couple of days.

But as with any government-sponsored project, the wheels are already spinning. “The federal government provided $8 million to the state DOT,” Abruzzi says, “and the plans flew through the Cliff Walk Commission and CRMC. Clean Ocean Access founder Dave McLaughlin is on the Cliff Walk Commission, and he saw the plans a few months ago, but the proposed jetty was only five feet out from the wall, not 25 feet. Now, the bids are out, and everything’s supposed to start on May 15th.” The CRMC, however, iterated that they were not responsible for the project — only for issuing permits to the DOT to carry it out. Laura Dwyer, Public Educator and Information Coordinator, says that the CRMC's professional engineering and biology staff members have taken the project and all public comments into consideration, and that the agency's staff has already met with RIDOT to express substantial concerns with the proposal. Dwyer reports that the RIDOT has agreed to submit a significantly redesigned project, with plans forthcoming.

Dave McLaughlin, founder of Clean Ocean Access, couldn’t be reached for comment today, but on the forum, he had this to say about the proposals and timeline of the project: “The entire work effort is split into 27 zones, [and] the estimated duration of the project is six months. When I reviewed these plans on March 20th, I questioned the rectangles offshore [and] was told they were the ‘access points’ for the barge to offload the material on the shoreline — there was no talk of jetties. If the concept of a jetty was known, that issue would have surfaced 11 days ago. On the plans I saw, it called for five to ten feet of armor stone, but the CRMC permit request disclosed the information more explicitly by indicating the rock will extend to 2.43 feet below mean high tide water mark. If you’ve ever walked out at Ruggles at low tide (which is about -0.5 on average), to get to -2.43 feet is about 10 feet past the natural rock.”

McLaughlin also said online that “the idea of introducing any change to the coastline will have an impact on the surf. Whether it helps or hurts is an entirely different question. I don’t think that we should be using federal disaster relief money as a project to tamper with coastal characteristics of this area. In all fairness, no one is trying to disrupt the surf — the DOT just wants to use this opportunity to make the sure the Cliff Walk stays in good shape for as long as possible.” The petition points out that the proposal could be illegal according to the CRMC’s own rules, “which prohibit ‘filling’ and any activities that would create an ‘adverse impact to coastal resources, water-dependent uses, or the public’s use and enjoyment of the shoreline and waters’ in tidal waters.” The CRMC also prohibits new development on moderately developed coastal barriers, stating that, but since the Cliff Walk is an existing structure, those rules would not apply to repairs. “The CRMC must balance all of the uses of that area,” Dwyer says. “The historic nature of the Cliff Walk, the other users, and the DOT's request to make repairs from Sandy.”

McLaughlin added online that his organization has mobilized for the fight against the proposed project. “The necessary gears are in motion for consideration of the permit, asking the council to put it on the docket, working with CWC to take a further look, asking the state senators and representatives to get involved (as it is a state project), and reaching out to DOT to review the plans. If people can send letters to all of these folks it would be great.”

Given his own long history fighting for the right to legally access and enjoy the surf at Ruggles, Abruzzi sounds an even higher alarm. “I liken it to a baseball game,” he says. “This is the 7th inning stretch right here, and they’re coming in to close out the game. Everything’s moving full bore — the engineers are working, and if we hadn’t found out about it now, we’d probably be worse off than we are. People keep telling us we’re fighting an uphill battle.”

Join the march by signing the Clean Ocean Access-generated petition here:

View the entire DOT proposal here via the Coastal Resources Management Council public notice:

And start contacting your local, regional, and state representatives:

State Representative David Ciciline
DC Office Phone: 202-225-4911
RI Office Phone: 401-729-5600

United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
DC Office Phone: 202-224-2921
RI Office Phone: 401-453-5294

State Assembly Representative Peter Martin
Phone: 401-924-2402

Newport Mayor Harry Winthrop
Office: 401-845-5436

Newport City Manager Jane Howington
Office: 401-845-5429

Newport Planning Department
Office: 401-845-5473

To put in a protest for consideration to CRMC, contact Grover Fugate
Coastal Resources Management Council
Stedman Government Center - Suite 116
4808 Tower Hill Road
Wakefield, RI 02879-1900

To request the City Council to put this topic on the docket for review, contact
43 Broadway Newport RI 02840

To voice your concern about the engineering plans, contact
attention Peter Healey
Department of Transportation
2 Capitol Hill
Providence, RI 02903

To get state senators activated for their district, which includes the Cliff Walk:
Room 323
State House
Providence, RI 02903

To get state representatives activated for their district, which includes the Cliff Walk:
Room 317
State House
Providence, RI 02903

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