WESTERLY — Efforts by the town and a local business to improve the environment and coastal resiliency caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse on Tuesday.
"It's stunningly impressive and the fact that so many different parts of the community have come together to make it happen by common agreement is super impressive and it shows how much Westerly loves and values its very special seashore," Whitehouse said after a meeting with town officials at Two Little Fish Seafood Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut.
Tim Brennan, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Jennifer, her brother, Kevin Urbonas, and his wife, Nancy, invited the third term Democrat after the senator wrote to Brennan to acknowledge his efforts to improve the environment by serving on a state working group organized by Gov. Gina Raimondo and through steps he has taken to reduce the restaurant's use of plastic and foam products.
A small group of town officials spoke with Whitehouse about the town's efforts and needs during the luncheon meeting. Earlier in the day Whitehouse met with members of Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce and officials at Westerly Hospital. He planned to complete his visit with a visit to the Ocean House in Watch Hill.
Gina Fuller, of Westerly, district manager of the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District, reviewed some of the town's efforts to improve the environment. The initiatives include: installation of solar-powered trash and recycling compacting units at the town and state beaches and in town during the winter; Green the Beach Day at the Town Beach, which raised funds for the installation of a filtered water bottle filler at the beach; and a 75% reduction in the use of foam products at the Town Beach concession stand.
The Town Beach also eliminated the use of plastic straws at the beach concession stand, and the beach has partnered with nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and businesses for more than 12 cleanups of the beach and Winnapaug Pond since March 2018. Additionally, Two Little Fish sponsored the town Recreation Department's purchase of reef safe sunscreen.
A Fun in the Sun Recreation Department program for children has eliminated all foam and plastic from art projects and added conservation-themed activities; and the entrance to Wuskenenau Beach was improved with perennials and planters through a $500 grant from Two Little Fish. Additionally, a town ordinance prohibiting the distribution of single use plastic bags in groceries and other stores is set to take effect soon.
Town Council President Christopher Duhamel and Town Manager J. Mark Rooney asked Whitehouse for assistance in securing permits and funding for a proposed dredge of Winnapaug Pond. Rooney said town officials have struggled to meet the requirements of both state and federal agencies. Karen Bradbury, projects director for Whitehouse, said she was working on the project and believed a permitting solution was close at hand.
Duhamel and Rooney also noted that the town was facing two big ticket resiliency infrastructure projects at the municipal sewage treatment plant: $2 million for a berm to protect the Margin Street plant, which is in a 100-year flood zone; and $5.5 million for structural, electrical, and mechanical upgrades necessary to prepare for future hazards and to comply with new federal and state mandates.
The town officials also informed Whitehouse that the storm drainage system on Main Street is in need of improvement. Brennan described the town's hoped-for eco-trail, which would run along a section of the Atlantic Avenue shoreline of Winnapaug Pond. Duhamel also discussed the need to address drainage on flood-prone Atlantic Avenue.
Lisa Pellegrini, the town's director of development services, said many of the environmentally themed accomplishments and goals reflect the nature of the town's residents. "What's very fortunate about Westerly is people get together and work together for one cause," she said.
Pellegrini reviewed the town's successful effort to maintain a high-class ranking certification under the federal Emergency Management Agency's Community Rating System. The high rating helps ensure flood insurance premium rates at a discount for property owners. Rooney noted the significance of coastal properties to the town's tax base. "The way Westerly is set up, our Grand List is so coastal driven," he said.
Pellegrini also discussed the town's selection as one of five municipalities to receive funding under the state Infrastructure Bank's Municipal Resiliency Program, a collaboration with the Nature Conservancy. The funds will allow the town to host a workshop focused on resiliency planning on Aug. 22 at the Westerly Education Center. Projects that emerge from the workshop will be considered for implementation funding by the Infrastructure Bank. She also informed Whitehouse that Galvin Buckley, mayor of Annapolis, Md., has requested to meet with Rooney and Duhamel to review Westerly's climate resiliency projects and funding. The meeting is expected to occur in September, when Buckley plans to be in Rhode Island.
Whitehouse, a member of the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, is well known in Congress for his support of measures to reduce pollution, develop alternative energy sources, and deal with the effects of climate change. He said that the most recent proposed highway bill includes a new climate change section "specifically dedicated to coastal infrastructure at risk from sea level rise and storm surge. Witness Atlantic Avenue, right here, which is a perfect example." The bill has yet to be considered by the full Congress.
"But with any luck there will be some very significant resources to help coastal communities like Westerly with these new risks they have to deal with and the new obligations that come with those risks," Whitehouse said.
Brennan reviewed the commitment he made to make his restaurant more environmentally friendly following the pounding Superstorm Sandy put on Misquamicut in 2012. Since then the restaurant has eliminated foam packaging and offers plant-based cups and utensils. Next spring Brennan said he will convert to selling water packaged in fully compostable bottles.
"I did it without raising my prices and I did it because it seemed like the right thing to do," he said.
Whitehouse praised the work of town officials, business owners and residents. "I think you guys are setting a standard for the entire state and maybe the Northeast coast, this is really impressive," Whitehouse said.