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Stonington - In the densely settled village of Stonington Borough, Dodge Paddock and the adjacent Beal Preserve provide a rare pocket of unbuilt landscape, with dirt paths instead of sidewalks leading past tall meadow grasses instead of manicured lawns.
The property, between Little Narragansett Bay and the end of Wall Street, took a pummeling during Superstorm Sandy last fall. The tidal force of the storm tore a gaping hole in the seawall at the northeast corner of the property. It flattened dunes at the other end and threw tons of sand, heavy rocks and debris onto the meadow.
"It's a gorgeous piece of land, but it's so fraught with issues," said Beth Sullivan, one of the Stonington stewardship representatives for the Avalonia Land Conservancy, which owns the parcels that total about 3.6 acres. "This is maintained by a few of us volunteers, but now this is way beyond the scope of what a couple of guys and ladies with shovels can do."
The area, just a few feet above sea level, has long been prone to drainage problems from the borough stormwater that flows through there, causing a small pond to stagnate and become a haven for mosquito breeding. The storm worsened the problem, plugging one drainage pipe and breaking another beyond repair. Tidal surge flooded the paddock, once a grazing area for livestock and the site of a pottery factory and a sawmill in the 1800s, along with the homes that ring the property.
Avalonia volunteers and contractors, Sullivan said, gathered the storm debris and rocks into piles and shored up areas where the seawall was undermined by filling a gully next to the wall with rubble tossed ashore by Sandy. But the organization is still figuring out how to remedy other problems worsened by the storm, trying to balance its mission to preserve places in their natural state as much as possible, while also accounting for the unique circumstances of a property in the middle of a village neighborhood, plus the realities of rising sea levels and increasing frequency of intense storms.
"Avalonia's responsibility is to the land, but do we also bear a responsibility to protect the neighbors?" Sullivan asked. "We can't fight Mother Nature, and we can't manage this as a manicured urban park. We met with townspeople in November, and some want us to do things immediately. They don't understand it takes time."
Avalonia has gotten help from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. After doing some elevation surveys and assessing the damage, Roger Wolfe, mosquito management coordinator for DEEP, said he and colleagues have developed a plan to dig out a swale to improve drainage and allow more tidal flushing of the pond.
"That should eliminate the mosquito breeding problem, and allow some fish access for biological mosquito control," he said. "We're putting a permit application together."
DEEP plans to do the work at the property, he said. But people need to understand that shorelines are dynamic, he said, and attempts to totally prevent the reshaping power of future storms like Sandy would just be futile.
"Things are not going to go back the way they were," he said. "There is a huge educational component to this."
As a nonprofit agency, Avalonia doesn't have the money to repair the broken seawall, Sullivan said, and even if did, it probably wouldn't. The tidal surge of Sandy found its way over, under and through the wall, and future big storms would do the same, she said.
"Fixing this would be really expensive," she said, looking over the gap in the wall. "The water just funnels right though here. This (gap) may just stand here as a testament to the power of the storm."