The Battle for Fenwick’s Shoreline

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The sun begins to set across the hybrid living shoreline project on the Borough of Fenwick at the mouth of the Connecticut River in November 2020. Long Island Sound is in the foreground and the Connecticut River is in the background. The tidal Crab Creek runs through the marsh under the stewardship of the Lynde Point Land Trust.

The Battle for Fenwick's Shoreline

A living shoreline project to protect a community and the mouth of the Connecticut River
By David Holahan | Photos by Christopher Zajac

Surrounded by water on three sides—most dramatically by the Connecticut River to the north and east and by Long Island Sound to the south—the Borough of Fenwick is on the front lines of climate change. The independent hamlet and its 50-odd residents have battled rising tides for decades.

Case in point: the former Hepburn mansion, less than a stone’s throw from the Sound. Katharine Hepburn’s brick home was built the year after the 1938 hurricane obliterated the family’s wood-framed cottage on Fenwick’s beachfront. A seawall and a series of jetties were constructed as well for protection, a mini-Maginot line designed to thwart the bounding main.

Andy Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy, talks about the scope of the shoreline restoration project. The CRC was tapped to oversee the nearly $1 million project.

But time and again the surging waters overwhelmed these static defenses, inundating the actress’s front yard and ground floor. Hepburn learned to live with periodic incursions; for example, she put her two refrigerators up on blocks. A decade ago, a subsequent owner elevated the entire 8,400-square-foot edifice by five and a half feet.

Due east of this stubborn house, on several acres of property that Hepburn donated to the Lynde Point Land Trust, Fenwickians are trying a new and softer strategy in this continuing coastal combat. It is not Détente exactly; it is closer to a go-with-the-flow approach. Rather than marshaling hard and fixed defenses, seawalls and whatnot, the plan is to redesign, restore, and augment about 450 feet of receding shoreline by using nature’s own arsenal: imported boulders, sand, stones, marsh grass, and native plantings. It is a small stretch of barrier beach to be sure, less than a tenth of a mile, but it is critical to surrounding ecosystems—not to mention to the very geographic integrity of the Borough itself.

Annie Procaccini, a project manager with SumCo Eco-Contracting, stands in front of the engineered rock piles placed by the company in the early stages of the project. The large rock sills were designed and placed to withstand the wave action and provide habitat for aquatic life.

Battered by frequent storms, Fenwick has fully embraced a relatively new concept devised to help coastal communities cope with severe weather and sea level rise. The goal of its “Living Shoreline” pilot program, completed in May and one of only three like it along Connecticut’s coast, is not to win the war—but to be resilient, to survive to fight another day. There will be setbacks, more superstorms like Sandy; and the new and improved shoreline will be overwhelmed at times. The hope is that, as the Sound continues to rise, this curated natural barrier will bend, but not break.

In 2019 the Lynde Point Land Trust engaged the nonprofit Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) to oversee the deployment of living shoreline defenses on the land’s threatened sand spit, which has been receding for decades. The Borough’s planning and zoning board (among other authorities, such as Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers) gave its blessing, and implementation of the estimated $1 million project began in the fall of 2020. It was completed in May of 2021 at a final cost of $911,880. How well it stands up to the elements will be important not only for Fenwick, but also to other coastal communities.

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“There are plenty of opportunities where these Living Shoreline solutions can make a difference,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the CRC. “We’re trying to set an example—the design here hopefully is replicable, the permitters are understanding how this approach works; so this Fenwick project can set a framework for more of these in the future.” He added that several neighboring shoreline communities have shown an interest in CRC’s endeavor.

SumCo employees unroll a biodegradable mat made from coconut fiber that will protect the intertidal area between the rock sills and the highwater line from erosion and provide protection for growing aquatic vegetation.

This coastal redesign faced multiple challenges. Crab Creek and a 47-acre restored marsh abut the narrowing beachfront to the north; and common nor’easters would often top the dwindling dune, removing sand and beach grass and flooding the creek and Lynde Point Marsh. Besides the immediate damage to the environment, the larger concern was that such incursions would make the opening permanent, turning the creek into an expanding waterway that would open another connection for the Connecticut River to Long Island through eastern Fenwick. This ever-widening channel would cleave the Borough in two, cutting off Lynde Point—including a dozen houses and an historic lighthouse—from the rest of the Borough.

American beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata) is planted two shoots to a hole at twelve-inch spacing along the newly constructed dune. Workers planted about 36,000 beach grass shoots in the project area.

“Long Island Sound would connect to Crab Creek and what you’d have is a whole lot more water moving back and forth, and Lynde Point would be completely cut off; the marsh would be wiped out after all the work that has been done to restore it,” Fisk said. The governments of Fenwick and Connecticut had joined forces in 2002 to restore the marsh, which in the previous century had been used as a dumping ground for dredge spoils from the Connecticut River.

To prevent the dismemberment of Fenwick and to protect its coastal and marsh habitats, a full menu of Living Shoreline solutions have been implemented. An array of nine imposing rock sills—carefully designed, spaced, and placed jumbles of partially submerged boulders—was installed offshore to dissipate wave energy while allowing water and living things to maintain their connection with the coastline. Another benefit of these natural barriers is that the waves now can deposit sand on the beach rather than scouring it away.

A variety of native species of plants such as saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), high-tide bush (Iva frutescens), northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), and others wait at the highwater mark to be planted through the project area.

The next line of defense is a strip of rocky or cobbled beachfront, backed up by the existing dune, which has been enlarged with imported sand. To allow for this taller and wider barrier, Crab Creek was moved about 60 feet to the north. This not only puts it largely out of harm’s way, it also provides room for the dune to migrate over time—to roll, so to speak, with the watery punches. Finally, some 36,000 plugs of marsh grass have been planted this spring to help steady the sand.

How well this stretch of shoreline, along with Crab Creek and the Lynde Point Marsh, survive in the decades to come is uncertain. Living Shorelines have not been around long enough to establish a definitive track record, and every project is inherently unique. Plus, of course, no one knows how much and how fast Long Island Sound will rise.

Fenwick’s recreated beachfront has been designed to hold its own against a “ten-year storm,” i.e., a big one that is likely to occur once a decade. Sandy in 2012, by comparison, was a 260-year storm, and despite that limiting description, similar tempests are expected to follow in this century. After all, Irene in 2011 was a 100-year storm.

Workers from SumCo install the new culvert below the private access road. The new culvert is larger and stronger than the previous culvert to allow better tidal flow for Crab Creek and the brackish pond.

For all the unknowns about how the man-made-over shoreline will fare, one thing is clear: over the centuries Connecticut has constructed a great deal of hardened coastline—seawalls, revetments, jetties, and the like—and they have proved wanting. “Irene and Sandy showed the vulnerability of the hard approaches,” said Juliana Barrett, a coastal habitat specialist with Connecticut Sea Grant. “It was after those storms that people really started to look at other ways to control coastal erosion. Connecticut passed legislation that basically said people had to look at living shoreline solutions rather than just putting seawalls everywhere.”

Connecticut Sea Grant, located at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus, is a state and federal partnership between UConn and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Sea Grant College Program. Barrett added, “One of the most important things about Living Shorelines is that they maintain the natural interface between the land and the water—with a seawall you are cutting off that interface and destroying natural habitat.”

Marcy Balint, a senior coastal planner with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, traced the trend away from hardened shore defenses back to 1980, to the Connecticut Coastal Management Act. “It discouraged and disallowed new shoreline erosion control structures with certain exceptions, including marinas, key infrastructure, and cemeteries,” she said, adding that legislation passed in 2012 streamlined the permitting process for living shoreline pilot projects, like the one at Fenwick, to a maximum of 90 days.

Mark Tedesco, director of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Long Island Sound Office, said that the living shoreline movement, while expanding rapidly, is still in its infancy. He added that Fenwick’s project, which his agency has reviewed and supports, is an important step forward in the learning process. It can demonstrate that flooding and erosion can be mitigated without damaging coastal ecosystems.

The evolution of the project is seen in the sequence of aerial pictures (L-R) November 2020 – Early in the project, rock being installed and dune sand being delivered. Early-April 2021 – Rock sills in place, protective matting being installed. Mid-April 2021 – Construction begins to relocate Crab Creek culvert. Late-April 2021 – New culvert in place and Crab Creek relocated.

The ten-foot-high dune protects the Hepburn Family Preserve and Crab Creek from an ocean breach. Under the morning sun, SumCo employees plant American beach grass to protect the dune from erosion. In the background, Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse marks the channel entrance to the Connecticut River.

“Part of the challenge is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and there are places where a hardened shoreline makes the most sense or an existing hardened shoreline needs to be strengthened,” he said. “The hardened solution may seem cheaper in the near term—it’s easy enough to build a wall or a jetty—but there are costs from that approach to the long-term functioning of the ecosystem. We lose opportunities to protect or restore wetlands. We lose intertidal habitat. It impacts fisheries, water quality, and recreational opportunities. There are real economic and social costs.”

The multiple layers of protection can be seen as workers continue laying the protective matting down in the intertidal area. The rock sills in Long Island Sound provide the first layer of defense while the vegetation area in the intertidal zone, the area of cobble laid down just above the highwater line, and then the sand dune covered in beach grass and other native plantings provide the additional layers.

An example of the long-term cost of a hardened solution is evident in Fenwick’s living shoreline project itself. The receding sandy spit that the Connecticut River Conservancy has just restored was doing fine until hardened defenses were established to protect the Hepburn mansion. The jetties induced a scouring action of Long Island Sound waters on the adjacent shoreline to the east, and this gradually ate away at the previously stable beachfront, according to Andy Fiske. The result was the creation of a small but deepening cove that eventually endangered Crab Creek, the Lynde Point Marsh, and Fenwick proper. The change can be seen in aerial photographs taken through the decades.

Brooke Girty, president of the Lynde Point Land Trust, has seen past efforts to stem the flooding and shoreline erosion of the Hepburn Family Preserve fail, most recently in 2007. Her organization has contributed $76,000 of the $250,000 that the Fenwick community has raised for the Living Shoreline project, nearly a quarter of its total cost. Additional funding has come from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s Long Island Sound Futures Fund, the John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation, the Robert F. Schumann Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Middlesex County. The project was designed by the engineering firm GZA GeoEnvironmental of Norwood, Massachusetts, and implemented by SumCo Eco-Contracting of Peabody, Massachusetts.

Even if the project is an unmitigated success, Fenwick faces challenges on other fronts. For example, Sequassen Avenue, which leads past Folly Point to the endangered houses at Lynde Point, floods every year. It will need attention someday. Still, protecting a barrier beach, a creek, and a marsh is a start.

Brooke Girty said of Fenwick’s restored beachfront: “It could be there for six months, it could be there for six years, or 16 years, but I don’t know what else we could do. Storms may blow out the dune but by moving Crab Creek at least we’ll have the room to put it back.”

It has already weathered two nor’easters and a southwester. But the battle for the shoreline has only just begun.

Vegetation is seen reclaiming the area in this aerial photo from mid-July, only a few months after the completion of the restoration project.

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