Granite? Aluminum? Wood? Rethinking coastal infrastructure in the wake of January’s storms

Legislative committee considering bill to allow fast track permitting and wharves built up to four feet higher than previously allowed.
Flood waters surround a commercial building in Castine.
Flooding in downtown Castine in January. Photo by Merissa Rogers.
Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to stay informed of Maine environmental news.

Kenneth Knauer, a project manager with Prock Marine, one of Maine’s largest marine contractors, is used to being busy. But the past few weeks have been an exception.

“We’ve been getting phone calls pretty steady ever since the storms hit,” said Knauer, referring to the back-to-back January storms that walloped the state’s coast, with gusts from the southeast clocking in at 92 mph in some places

Commercial docks are taking priority, said Knauer, while residential customers will have to wait. “We’ve been telling people for a residential dock or pier we won’t be able to get to them until the summer of 2025.” 

Navigating the world of shoreland zoning is complicated on a good day. Now, Prock engineers are trying to draft designs for new wharves, docks and piers that will make the infrastructure less vulnerable to rising seas and stronger storms while still meeting regulations set by communities, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

There also are practical constraints, like lobster fishermen who need docks to be at a certain level to be able to unload or load their traps.

Many wharfs today are built at six feet above mean high tide, said Knauer, but he is recommending upping that to eight feet, given the historic high tides seen in much of the state last month, which topped 14.5 feet in some places

“When I first started we would do five feet, then six feet. The norm should be eight feet above the mean high water.” 

Meeting all these needs might mean not just building higher, but changing up materials altogether. Some waterfront property owners, said Knauer, are rethinking wooden piers and docks and considering using aluminum instead, or adding concrete or granite structures below as supports. 

Even concrete and stone, however, are no guarantee, said Knauer, and may not make sense everywhere. 

“We’ve seen some large concrete slabs and granite walls get destroyed because they’re so rigid and compact.” Aluminum decking can be removed ahead of a storm, but if it’s left in place, creates a large surface area that could be impacted by the wind and waves.

“Wood pilings and wood decking are more breathable, and it’s cheaper to replace,” Knauer said. “Sometimes you have to think: ‘if something is going to break, how hard is it to fix?’”

What works in one place might not work in another, said Knauer — everything is on a case-by-case basis.  

“We normally go look at a site, give a proposal, and a lot of times refer them to other agents and engineers to help them get a permit,” Knauer said. “It seems like every town has their own little thing. Then you add DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.” 

Aerial view of a causeway that is surrounded by a marsh.
Marsh surrounds Mile Road in Wells. By the end of the century, sea-level rise is projected to fully submerge the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve lands. Photo by Alex MacLean.

Under the DEP’s “permit by rule,” anyone seeking to rebuild or repair a damaged structure as it existed prior to the storms is able to begin work two weeks after filing for a permit, as long as DEP staff haven’t raised any objections.

The Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources is considering a bill to allow fast track permitting and wharves built up to four feet higher than previously allowed.

Robert Wood, director of the Bureau of Land Resources for the DEP, said the bill would allow repair and replacement of wharfs, docks, and piers without a Natural Resources Protection Act permit, as long as the structure is the same as what existed before. The legislation would also allow the new structure to be four feet higher than previously permitted.

“A lot of folks who had damage are going to be repairing those structures, in some cases, replacing, and are very interested in bringing them up higher to be more resilient,” said Wood. “Some docks are right above the normal high water line.”

Chipman’s Wharf, a wholesale seafood and retail establishment in Milbridge lost 130 feet of dock and a bait shed in the storms, and is one of the many waterfront businesses tackling the rebuilding process. 

Co-owner Amity Chipman said the family is working with an engineer on a design to make the wharf better able to withstand storms like the ones in January, which she said they had never encountered before. At the moment, the proposed wharf design might be higher and wider.

Chipman said that with added height of the wharf, fishermen also likely will be making more regular use of hoists to lift traps. The company  had two hoists that were lost in the storms. 

Those who live and work on the waterfront have a short list of options as sea levels rise, as marine geologist Peter Slovinsky told the Monitor last year: “Do nothing, avoid, accommodate, adapt, protect and relocate.”

One thing, said Knauer, is for certain. 

“Try as you might, you’re not going to stop the water.” 

If you’re interested in stories about sea level rise, don’t miss the series we wrote in 2022, The Unstoppable Ocean.

It explores how ten Maine communities are navigating the complicated web of interests as they prepare their towns for rising seas and stronger storms. Read the introduction, or skip right to the communities we profiled: Blue HillCamdenDamariscottaMachiasPortlandSaco (Camp Ellis)South PortlandStoningtonVinalhavenWells.

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Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver is a veteran journalist, including a decade of reporting on Hancock County for the Ellsworth American. She covered Jimmy Carter's campaign as a rookie reporter for United Press International, and later freelanced for the New York Times and Reuters, among others.
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