By Michael Kelley, Staff Writer
Scarborough Leader news story
For generations the beauty of Scarborough’s beaches and marsh system has been an attraction for residents and visitors alike, but proximity to water also poses a risk to town infrastructure.
The town council met with members of the conservation commission last week to talk about Scarborough’s vulnerability to the rising sea level and begin a process of engaging with local departments as to how they can respond to the threat.
Peter Slovinsky, chairman of the conservation commission and a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey, said sea level rise is being caused by a number of factors, including ocean warming, land-based glacier/ice shift melting, terrestrial water storage, ocean dynamics and current patterns and weather.
“All it takes in a lot of places is perfect conditions to meld together to make things happen,” he told councilors at a May 18 workshop.
Since 1912, Slovinsky said the sea level has risen at a rate 7 inches per century. In the last 20 years, since 1992, it has risen to a rate of 13 inches per century. In 2010, Scarborough and other places in Maine, he said, saw “abrupt” sea level rise.
Slovinsky said by 2050, sea level is expected to rise by 1 foot. By 2070, it will rise 2 feet and by 2100 by another 3 to 4 feet.
Beginning in 2009, a group of officials from Biddeford, Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Scarborough formed the Sea Level Adaptation Working Group to look at how sea level rise and coastal flooding is impacting Saco Bay, Maine’s largest continuous stretch of sandy beaches,
According to a 2011 report from the Sea Level Adaptation Working Group (SLAWG), in the case of 1-foot of sea level rise – or storm surge – a total of 2.2 miles of roads in Scarborough would be impacted. The impact would increase to 4.8 miles with a 2-foot rise; 8.3 miles with a 3-foot rise and 17.6 miles with a 6-foot rise. The most impacted areas would be sections of Route 1 and Payne Road by the marsh, Pine Point Road, Black Point Road, Winnocks Neck Road and the Eastern Trail. In the event of a 100-year storm–which has a 1 percent chance of happening – 50 roads would be impact to some extent. This number increases to more than 100 roads in the event of a 3, or 6-foot sea level rise.
Hurricanes also pose a threat. In the event of a Category 2 hurricane making landfall at high tide, SLAWG reports 166 roads and up to 30 miles of road could be impacted.
It is not just roadways that could be impacted. A 2011 SLAWG report indicated Scarborough has 1,000 structures located in the mapped Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 100-year floodplain.
Slovinsky said Pine Point Road (Route 9) is at risk, particularly near the Maine Audubon’s Scarborough Marsh Center and the Clambake restaurant, as well where Route 1 crosses the marsh, the Eastern Trail corridor and sections of Black Point Road near the Nonesuch and Libby rivers.
“Where roads cross, tidal water is at risk,” Slovinsky said, adding low lying roads by the spit of the Spurwink River near Higgins Beach are also at risk.
Both public and private infrastructure at the beaches would be impacted with certain coastal flood and sea level rise scenarios.
“Higgins Beach is in the cross hairs. It has a lot of vulnerable infrastructure located right on the water that pretty much is at risk,” Slovinsky said. “I say that because they don’t have a well developed dune system. Pine Point has a pretty good dune system.”
Slovinsky said sea level rise and coastal flooding could have serious implications on emergency management.
B. Michael Thurlow, who serves as Scarborough’s fire chief and director of the Scarborough Emergency Management Agency, said flooding and sea level rise is something that is not specifically noted in the town’s plan, but it is something that he is paying attention to.
“We know it’s coming. We are paying attention to it and we are being proactive with our zoning ordinances, but I can’t point to a change in tactic or approach because of it,” he said.
Thurlow said there are alternative routes mapped in case a major corridor such as Pine Point Road is not passable and emergency vehicles cannot reach Pine Point.
“What we do with our emergency plans is we look at it for all sorts of hazards,” Thurlow said, adding Scarborough plays an active role helping to update Cumberland County’s hazard mitigation plan, which is required to be reviewed every five years.
Slovinsky said it is important to get town departments together to form a response plan because sea level rise and flooding have town-wide implications.
The targeted departments include the planning department, public works, fire department, police department and community services. Other groups, such as the Friends of Scarborough Marsh or Scarborough Land Trust, may also join the conversation.
“It’s exciting the conservation commission is working with town departments trying to move this forward,” Slovinsky said. “It’s easy to look at vulnerability. It is much harder to undertake how you are going to adapt. I think it is a significant effort that will help the town.”
Slovinsky said it would take about a year to sit down with representatives from the departments and craft specific recommendations. He said this work could be folded into the work that will soon be underway to update the town’s comprehensive plan.
Councilor Kate St. Clair said she was aware of some of the risk, but hearing from Slovinsky was eye-opening none the less.
“I had no idea the extent of what would happen at our beaches. What could potentially happen to some of those homes is a scary thought,” St. Clair said.
This is not just an issue for Scarborough, or the other communities in SLAWG. Slovinsky said he has worked with 30 communities, mostly in York County, to address the issue. The communities, he said, are taking a series of approaches. Some are developing climate action plans. Others are updating shoreland zoning ordinances and still others are tackling the issue through comprehensive plan updates. Portland has undergone an economic analysis of waterfront infrastructure and similar efforts are underway in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
“You guys are not alone in thinking about this. A lot of communities have undertaken a vulnerability study. The hard part is going from ‘we know we are vulnerable’ to taking action,” Slovinsky said.
Finding the right approach for Scarborough will take work.
“The data is so sobering you cannot ignore it,” said Town Council Chairman Bill Donovan. “It takes a tremendous amount of lead time to take this type of action.”
Scarborough has been in this position before. Town Manager Tom Hall said a previous council decided to table the issue until new flood maps from the FEMA are released. The maps were supposed to be released by now, but have been proposed and then pulled back several times. The updated maps could be released as early as this summer.
Town Councilor Jean-Marie Caterina, a former conservation commission member, said she would not support the council taking similar action this time around.
“I would not want to wait until the flood maps. It’s political right now. God knows when the maps may or may not come out,” she said. “We have all the information. Why not move forward in the process?”