There were no easy answers at Blackstone Memorial Library last night. But at least shoreline residents got their say -- and the hope that legislation will catch up to a problem many see as both debilitating for homeowners and an omen of a catastrophic future.
The meeting was the first public forum hosted by the Shoreline Preservation Task Force, a panel of state legislators convened to address rising sea levels and issues stemming from the damage caused last year by Hurricane Irene.
The panel, including committee chair Sen. Ed Meyer, Rep. James Albis and Rep. Lonnie Reed, heard from over a dozen residents from a variety of backgrounds and locations, including Branford, East Haven and Guilford.
"We're here to listen to you," Reed said. Reed told Patch, "We're looking to hear people tell their personal stories -- what happened to them, what surprised them."
And in a room brimming with tension, she and her fellow legislators got their wish.
Some homeowners said entanglements in the red tape of DEEP (Department of Energy & Environmental Protection) prevented them from rebuilding after Irene. Other homeowners, along with some environmental advocates, warned that lax development regulations threatened to make flood damage worse in the future or even poison Connecticut's water. Sea walls were another source of controversy -- some homeowners said they'd faced damage done by neighbors' walls, and environmental advocates warned of the potential risk of building a sea wall. Others said they only wanted to rebuild their existing sea wall.
At least one resident came to the panel in desperation.
"We're in bad shape," Anthony Sacco of New Haven's Morris Cove told the panel. "Real bad shape. Nobody cares about us!"
Sacco is the owner of Tony & Lucille's Restaurant in New Haven. He told the panel that since Hurricane Irene, he's found water creeping into his home. His requests for help had been ignored -- by DEEP, politicians and local media.
"Morris Cove is done," he said. "Ready to go into the sea ... We're in the water." He was told he wouldn't be able to build a sea wall, which he said has resulted in junk piling on his property. As a final blow, he told the panel, he lost his insurance. His emotional comments elicited applause and murmurs of support from the crowd of about 100 residents.
But some speakers argued communities should take priority over individual properties.
"I appreciate need to protect existing properties and uses," said Branford's Doris Zelinsky. "But I'm also sensitive to the dangers of overbuilding: all of the requests for sea walls, larger sea walls, armored sea walls, stronger sea walls."
Along the shoreline, coastal structures sometimes extend just feet from sea level -- and levels are rising. Guilford's Sidney Gale warned bluntly that individual measures are not the answer.
"You will not be able to preserve everything, and the sooner you come to grips with that reality, the better," Gale said. "We need to be holistic. Sea walls for a property are utterly worthless for a neighborhood."
Gale said he didn't advocate aggressive eminent domain, but in the end, it might not matter -- damage to individual properties could pale in comparison to the damage to come.
"Please understand: Mother Nature does not give a damn about the constitution," Gale said. "The sooner we have the humility and the wisdom to understand that, the sooner we will be on the right track."
Gale advocated a regional approach tailored to saving communities rather than properties. And some town officials agreed the threat extends far beyond beach houses. Branford First Selectman "Unk" Da Ros localized the problem in his remarks.
"There's no question the water is rising," Da Ros said. "The only question is, what can be done for the infrastructure?"
A former marine contractor, Da Ros said he's seen the effects of rising sea levels across Branford. He called the panel's job a "daunting task."
"Roads used to have those signs that say, 'Water Over the Road,'" he said, citing Branford's Route 146, "Those signs have become permanent. And it's only getting worse."
Route 146's flooding has been intensifying. The road, which runs alongside Branford's coastline, used to flood two or three times a year, and now floods several times per month.
Sen. Meyer had suggestions for homeowners and developers: build back from the water, build up from the water and consider natural barriers before the "last resort" of sea walls. But he admitted an easy government solution was not apparent.
"I don't think any of us have a sense of the end goal," he said. "But we know we want to protect people, protect towns. I don't think there will be one umbrella that will fix everything.
"In some ways Irene opened our eyes to what is our new reality, and we all have to take notice."
The Task Force's public forums will continue in Fairfield (6 p.m. July 23 at the Penfield Pavilion) and Groton (6 p.m. August 6 at UConn Avery Point, ACD Room 308.)
What do you think? What steps should state legislature take to preserve our shoreline -- and should the wellbeing of the community be prioritized over individual property?