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No town permits required for Taylor Swift's seaside wall

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 12/29/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 12/30/2013 03:05 PM

I tried to imagine the scene in which Taylor Swift, back from a summertime ice cream pilgrimage to the village of Watch Hill, was pacing the rooms of her nearby mansion on the cliff and decided to write a song, about rearranging the rocky coastline below her.

OK, maybe that's not how it came about. Maybe it didn't start as a song.

But that was what I imagined Friday on an oceanside walk in Watch Hill when I came upon the fleet of big earth movers working on the cliff below Swift's mansion, busily, well, rearranging the rocky coastline.

One giant machine, part crane, was lifting big appliance-size boulders up out of the ocean with its mechanical claw and moving them.

"That's completely illegal," said a young man standing next to me, some distance away from the Swift beachfront, on a public promontory.

Looking distraught, he added that he is a surfer and is sure the changes to the ocean bottom will impact the quality of surfing there.

If not illegal, I thought, the work sure must require a boatload of permits, rearranging the rocky coastline and all.

Imagine my surprise when I soon discovered that Swift has not obtained one single permit from the town for the cliff work, which could well be among the largest construction projects in Westerly right now.

The wall they've built is so big you could practically see it from Block Island on a clear day. (OK, maybe not. But it is big.)

At a glance, with all the earth movers working, you might think they were building a landing strip or a mall. They've reconfigured the base of the cliff.

Up on Bluff Avenue, where you can't see all the work going on, the only clue that something big is happening down by the water is a new turn off the main driveway, a new dirt road that has been built down the cliff, toward the beach.

You can see part of this road and the construction staging area, with temporary fencing, generator, light tower for night work, construction trailer and portable potty, from the nearby public path down to the beach.

There are no posted permits at the street, though, and no contractor signs at the site or on any of the equipment.

The guard posted at the drive identified the contractor as Cherenzia Excavation.

When I asked if someone of authority from Cherenzia was at the site, the guard said yes.

When I asked if I could speak to that person, the guard said, "absolutely not."

I also got no call back Saturday from a message left on an answering machine for Cherenzia, which has offices in Pawcatuck.

Work was underway at full clip at the Swift site Saturday, though.

After touring the Swift construction site Friday from the public perimeters, I headed to Town Hall, thinking the permits on file there would better explain what's going on.

So imagine my surprise when the first person I encountered at the building office said the only work she knew of at the Swift mansion was the installation of a generator.

I then asked to speak with Building Official David Murphy, who acknowledged that he does indeed know of the extensive work going on at the Swift house.

Indeed, when I suggested it must be costing more than a million dollars, he raised his eyebrows and said it is probably costing a lot more than that.

Still, he said, he has decided that no building permit is needed.

That means, of course, that there are no plans for the work on file in the building office. And there will be no building permit sent along to the tax assessor, to trigger a property tax increase.

And no permit fee, assessed at the rate of $7 per thousand spent, was charged.

Murphy noted that the Swift contractors do have a permit from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, which regulates work within 200 feet of the ocean.

When I asked Murphy if someone was building a house within 200 feet of the ocean, wouldn't they need both CRMC and town permits, he said of course they would.

When I asked why a permit was not required for the huge wall that has been built on the Swift property, Murphy said it was not attached to the house.

But he went on to say that a permit would be required for a wall taller than 32 inches, holding a certain load, anywhere in town, whether it is attached to a house or not.

In the end, sensing, I suppose, my utter surprise that no town permits had been issued for such a massive project, he suggested they might revisit the topic Monday.

Meanwhile, it was too late Friday to hunt down anyone from CRMC to find out more about the permits they have issued for the Swift property. It is hard to imagine that the CRMC, with its reputation for putting waterfront property owners through the regulatory wringer, would treat plucking big boulders off the ocean bottom lightly.

I did find recent permits listed on the CRMC website that show permission for "landscaping 128 feet of new retaining wall" and "repair existing riprap revetment." But there was no explanation of the scope of the work.

Not only is the Swift contractor plucking and moving around big ocean boulders, but they have added a whole new line of rock sea wall on what had previously been a public beach, at a location that appears to be below mean high tide.

I am curious to find out what the Rhode Island attorney general, who went to court last year to keep parts of the Misquamicut beach public, will think about covering a public sandy beach in Watch Hill with an impenetrable line of rock.

Who knows if Taylor Swift is contemplating a song about her new coastline.

But Westerly beachgoers might have taken to heart the lyrics to one of her more popular songs when they first heard she was moving to town:

I knew you were trouble when you walked in

So shame on me now

Flew me to places I'd never been

Now I'm lying on the cold hard ground

Oh, oh, trouble, trouble, trouble

Oh, oh, trouble, trouble, trouble

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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