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Parts of Barrington will be underwater by 2035, sea-level data shows

Target 12

BARRINGTON, R.I. (WPRI) — In just over a dozen years, Barrington will contend with several key roads flooding every month, including the town’s evacuation route for hurricanes, according to experts and sea-level data projections.

These projections show a roughly three-mile stretch of Route 114, the town’s evacuation route, will be submerged twice a day by 2050. Teresa Crean, a coastal research associate at the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute, told Target 12 that Barrington is one of the leaders in climate change mitigation across the state.

In 2019, the town was one of the first to partner with the R.I. Infrastructure Bank to create a Municipal Resilience Program, which uses grant funding to help communities with projects like road elevation and coastal erosion control. Barrington received a $201,000 grant that same year to restore Walker Farm off of Route 114 to a salt marsh, which experts say will slow the impacts of rising sea levels along the road.

“But at what point do we have to say, this is no longer feasible, and this ​roadway will be under water twice a day?” Crean said. “We need to really rethink, and it could end up costing big dollars.”

A central artery in the East Bay, Route 114 carries 25,000 vehicles every day, according to the R.I. Department of Transportation.

“We have to consider the road network — if you elevate your property, but your road’s still wet, is it really solving the problem?” Crean said. (Crean has since been hired as Barrington’s town planner.)

And the risks in Barrington aren’t some distant worry.

Rhode Island’s STORMTOOLS website shows that, because of sea-level rise that’s already occurred over the past two decades, if a storm like 1954’s Hurricane Carol hit Barrington today, it would effectively make it a series of islands. As the image below shows, nearly half of Barrington’s land would be underwater in such a storm.

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Barrington Town Manager Phil Hervey said finding local solutions to rising sea levels and climate change more broadly are his top priorities, and the biggest issue facing the town in the years ahead.

“If you look at the maps, we’re one of the more vulnerable communities in Rhode Island,” Hervey said.

Hervey said the town plans to build a residential development where the Zion Bible Institute campus is currently located, calling it one of the few undeveloped areas of the town that offers higher ground.

Brian Thimme, owner of Bluewater Bar + Grill in Barrington, began leasing the building 11 years ago, and said he is considering buying the property. But data shows that by 2035, his restaurant will be surrounded by water.

“It makes it a little bit more real looking at some of the data,” Thimme said.

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Thimme told Target 12 he hadn’t heard anything from town leaders regarding climate change or sea-level rise and wasn’t aware of any mitigation efforts.

Sean O’Rourke, managing director of the R.I. Infrastructure Bank, said situations similar to what Thimme faces are unfortunately becoming more common across the state.

“These are challenges that are confronting municipal leaders every single day now,” O’Rourke said.

If Thimme’s restaurant requires a seawall to prevent it from being lost to sea-level rise, O’Rourke said the town and permitting agency would together decide whether to approve building it.

Across the bridge in Warren, the town’s climate plan calls for moving homeowners from the low-lying Market Street neighborhood to a new neighborhood the town would build on higher ground.

The projected cost is $138 million.

But Barrington, with multimillion-dollar homes everywhere you look, faces a more expensive dilemma.

“There will be definitely difficult discussions to be had over time, but I don’t have the answers yet,” Hervey told Target 12.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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