The Fuss & O’Neill and Woods Hole Group consulting firms had a stark ultimatum for the Redevelopment Authority at its meeting on Thursday, Feb. 9; Main Street and Merchants Way must adapt, or drown.
According to studies conducted by both firms as part of the Resilient Main Street project, the Wareham River could rise 3.7 feet by 2030, 5.0 feet by 2050 and 6.8 feet in 2070. The risk of catastrophic storms, which, like sea level rise, is heightened by climate change, will also increase through the decades.
During Thursday’s meeting, consultants and town officials discussed ways that Wareham could revitalize its downtown while also preventing its destruction.
“That’s the inherent tension we’re going to have to start unpacking,” said Eileen Gunn, a project manager at Fuss & O’Neill. “What are your visions for the future, and how can we build a resiliency plan that matches with your urban redevelopment efforts? How can we marry the two?”
In the year 2050, there is a 1% chance that all of Main Street and Merchants Way will be flooded. In 2070, that becomes a 10% chance.
Fuss & O’Neill Senior Water Resources Engineer Dean Audet compared the risk of flooding to rolling a 100-sided die.
“It’s not impossible to roll three ones in a row, but it happens,” he said. “And every year, that risk increases.”
Prior to Saturday’s meeting, Fuss & O’Neill and Woods Hole released three videos updating residents about their findings. A large portion of eastern Main Street, from 219 to 137, is made up of buildings “not practical to floodproof” due to their age and elevation.
“We consider those buildings a lost cause,” said Director of Planning and Community Development Ken Buckland.
The town is considering buying those buildings and demolishing them to create “green space.” When these natural spaces are not absorbing floodwaters, they can be used for recreation.
Even buildings currently marked as “safe” will become harder to floodproof as sea levels rise.
The studies also found that the central part of Merchants Way, from the fire station to TD Bank, has severely limited space for anti-flood construction.
“To be blunt, watching this, we’re screwed,” Town Administrator Derek Sullivan said. “Are we just missing where there’s a major choke point over there?”
Sullivan asked if the floodwaters could somehow be “funneled” away from buildings on Main Street.
“Mother Nature doesn’t quit,” said Select Board Chair Judith Whiteside. “So your comment about funneling it… you can’t.”
Audet said that rather than being “screwed,” the flood risk provides an opportunity to “reimagine” Wareham.
The Redevelopment Authority’s proposal to increase building height to 65 feet in downtown Wareham, and allow mixed-used zoning to increase population density, could be the key to protecting against flooding. Buildings would be elevated with parking lots on ground level.
To that end, the Redevelopment Authority is placing an article to amend the zoning bylaws on the agenda of this spring’s Town Meeting.
Officials mentioned a variety of other solutions, such as elevating buildings on stilts or a mound of earth, creating a berm or sea wall along the Wareham river and installing floodproofing measures. These measures include covering walls with sealing, bricking up abandoned doors and windows and installing flood shields in front of doorways.
There was even a suggestion to move Main Street’s commercial activity to High Street, a controversial idea because it would compromise the street’s historic homes and scenic views.
Select Board member Ron Besse warned against Wareham “becoming Las Vegas,” and wondered whether the dangers to Main Street will scare businesses from the town.
“I can’t tell you that right now,” Audet said, “but hopefully I can tell you that in five months… You’re buying insurance. This is risk reduction.”
Sullivan was wary of “abandoning business” in a commercially viable area like Main Street.
“We’re a waterfront community that’s economically like a western Massachusetts community,” Sullivan said. “Not every waterfront town is rich… I understand that this is aspirational, we’re looking 50 years into the future and such, but what is the goal we’re trying to look at here?”
The MBTA train tracks along Merchants Way are another complication. Since they are state property, the town has no jurisdiction over them.
“They’re not going to let their engines plow through four feet of water,” Whiteside said. “At some point, they’re going to have to elevate — not happening — or move.”
“What’s interesting is that the high tide won’t reach the railroad tracks until 2070,” Buckland said, “which means there’s time to invest in those properties [near the tracks].”
“Tidal flooding really influences what you can do on those properties,” replied Woods Hole Group Senior Environmental Scientist Joseph Famely.
The Redevelopment Authority is currently working on a comprehensive plan to obtain funding for anti-flood projects. Gunn said that the time to act is now, due to an “unprecedented” influx of funding from the recent infrastructure bill which might not be around forever.
“In order to use those funds before anyone else does,” Whiteside said, “we have to be creating new zoning.”
Meeting attendees received a survey asking them what their priorities were for Main Street, and how willing they were to “retreat… vulnerable buildings to create floodable public green spaces” and “create edge adaptations” such as a berm or sea wall.
Residents can learn more about Resilient Main Street by visiting https://tinyurl.com/5n7jj6cb, and give feedback by taking a survey at https://tinyurl.com/ye2a3ubh.
Copyright Wareham Week 2023