Taylor Swift rebuilds sea wall after storm damage; locals angered

The original concrete retaining wall at Taylor Swift's house in Watch Hill and the freshly laid riprap to the left.



Permits issued for repair work

Permits were issued to Taylor Swift on November 6 for “riprap revetment repair” and "landscaping 128 feet of new retaining wall" along the sea wall of her Watch Hill beach house. The permit allows for the replacement of unsafe rocks and re-setting of existing rocks, as reported by the Westerly Sun in November.

“It all started during Sandy,” said Laura Dwyer, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. “The wall sustained damage during Sandy. We’ve done our due diligence,” she added, noting that several CRMC staff members and the executive director visited the property before approving the application. “It’s a permitted activity.”

Amy Grzybowski, Westerly’s director of planning, code enforcement and grant administration, told the Westerly Sun that town officials were also aware of the project.

Angry newspaper column

However, on December 29, David Collins of the New London Day wrote a column in which he expressed his shock at "the scope of the work" taking place on what he referred to as a “public” beach. He wrote that the workers were "rearranging the rocky coastline" by moving boulders from the sea with a crane. He questioned whether it would have an effect on the quality of local surfing.

Collins compared the level of activity to the "building of a landing strip or a mall" and and bemoaned the unattractive sight of a dirt track and construction staging area, “with temporary fencing, generator, light tower for night work, construction trailer and portable potty", on Swift's land. This construction area is viewable from the nearby public path down to the beach. He quoted an unnamed surfer who claimed the work is "completely illegal" and said Swift did not obtain "one single permit from the town" for the work.

Collins contacted the Town Hall where Building Official David Murphy said he had decided no building permit was needed. Only a CRMC permit was needed for the repair of such a wall.

The story was picked up by various news outlets, including Radar, Gawker and the Daily Mail. ‘I don’t know how the hell they let her do this without approval or nothing,’ a furious Richard Bishop, 76, told MailOnline as he climbed atop the wall to survey the development. 

"I just can't believe she didn't need permits for it," 48-year-old James Tuscano said.

Pete Silva, 31, said the construction covers up years of history. The spot has been a popular spot for teenagers to hang out for longer than he's been alive. It's also become a makeshift memorial of sorts for his friend Trevor Johnson, who drowned there in 2004.

State officials responds
When Collins' story was picked up by celebrity websites, Laura Dwyer, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, spoke to The Providence Journal. She said the boulders were originally placed against the seawall. Over decades, erosion had allowed them to pull away from the wall and into the water.

"The larger boulders were historically there. We have photograph evidence from previous property owners that they were there, but they were covered with sand. When the applicant came in with plans, they were proposing to leave those rocks way out in the water. We were the ones who asked them to get those boulders as close to the seaward side of that concrete wall as possible."

A provision of the CRMC permit prohibits contractors or Swift from impeding any public right of way to the ocean or any lateral access along the shoreline. Dwyer said the CRMC expected the permit applications from such an international celebrity would draw attention.

"Our executive director had a feeling this was going to happen, so doing more than his usual due diligence, he went the the site a number of times, just so he had a good understanding of the present conditions, what they wanted to do, and in order to feel comfortable that this was all under "maintenance" of the sea wall." 

Dwyer said the project's engineering firm also had an engineer on the site every day "because they recognise this is a high-profile case and they want to be sure they remain in compliance. All is OK. Everything is on the level. They haven't done anything wrong."

In a separate Westerly Sun story, Westerly Town Manager Michelle Buck said Monday that she and her staff, including Town Building Inspector David Murphy, made certain that everything regarding the project was being done properly from the start. "It's all within the jurisdiction of the CRMC."

Amy Grzybowski, Westerly's director of planning, code enforcement and grant administration, reiterated that the project does not need permits from the Town of Westerly.

Columnist publishes a clarification

David Collins of the New London Day then wrote a follow-up column. He conceded that Swift's beach was in fact private property, after speaking with a spokesperson from the CRMC. The legal definition of mean high water in Rhode Island comes from a specific court case and involves complex calculations unrelated to the vagaries of the ocean tides on a beach or the classic "wet line" left behind. "The submission by Swift's engineers indicate a formal calculation was done and is largely correct."

Collins also referred to a letter he received from an attorney for Cherenzia Excavation, the company doing the work for Swift. They were angry at any suggestion of wrongdoing.

Collins acknowledged that the engineers got the CRMC permits required and that town officials had deemed additional permits unnecessary. The lawyer had taken issue with Collins' reference to "big cranes" lifting rocks out of the ocean, which implied that they were mining rocks from the ocean. Any rocks taken from the water were within Swift's own property and no machinery was used outside of Swift's property. Additional rocks have been imported from a outside quarry.

However, Collins still feels a building permit should be necessary for repairs costing $2 million, thereby subjecting it to an increased tax assessment. However, Michelle Buck, the Westerly town manager, refused to discuss the matter with him. Buck, after saying she didn't want to debate the topic, hung up on Collins on Monday

1 2 3 4 5