WESTERLY — Public access to the shore and an approved system for assigning moorings were the central topics this week as the Town Council started a review of the proposed harbor management plan.
Because the town currently does not an adopted plan or an ordinance for mooring assignments, “all mooring fields and all of the moorings in town are unauthorized,” said Kevin Cute, a marine resources specialist with the state Coastal Resources Management Council.
Cute met with the council Wednesday as it started its review of the plan. He was asked to provide an overview of issues arising from Watch Hill Harbor, where the majority of moorings are managed and used by members of the Watch Hill Yacht Club.
“Yacht clubs cannot manage public moorings,” Cute said, noting that the harbor is a public trust resource. “It belongs to everyone in the state, it’s state property. The state is the proper manager of its own property, we confer that authority to municipalities through approved harbor management plans.”
The situation in the harbor is further complicated because part of it is designated as a federal anchorage area, a designation put in place after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged a section of the harbor in the 1940s. Under Army Corps regulations, federal anchorage areas must be “open to all” regardless of residency.
After making similar requests over a period of decades, Cute noted that the Army Corps recently ordered the removal of mooring fields in a federal anchorage area in Wickford Harbor. Some of the fields have been managed by commercial marinas.
The town of North Kingstown has applied to the corps for a permit to allow the Wickford mooring fields. The application is pending. The corps could take similar action in Watch Hill and other parts of the town, Cute said.
“The army corps has been flexing its muscle lately,” he said.
Cute presented the council with potential options for addressing the Watch Hill situation. Under one scenerio, Cute said, the council could apply to the Army Corps and seek permits for all moorings in the town. Under this approach, Cute said, all non-riparian mooring holders would be stripped of the mooring they have been using and the town would conduct a lottery for assigning mooring use. “You’d be starting from scratch,” he said.
Or, Cute said, the council could enlist the town’s congressional delegation and seek to have the harbor deauthorized as a federal anchorage. If successful, the town could then develop a mooring distribution system that meets state and federal guidelines.
Cute said CRMC would consider allowing Watch Hill Yacht Club members to hold onto the moorings they have been using under a grandfather provision, but only if other criteria were met. Specifically, Cute said CRMC would have to be convinced that real steps had been taken to ensure access to moorings and that a system was developed to allow an eventual 3 to 1 ratio of resident mooring holders to nonresident mooring holders.
“Grandfathering? CRMC would consider that but not if that means everything stays the same and there’s no real access to mooring space or places for people to park or places for people to put in a dinghy to access moorings,” Cute said.
As a third option, Cute said, the council could chose to allow the federal designation to remain in place, a decision that would require a new mooring distribution system that meets the federal government’s “open to all” approach.
Watch Hill is not the only hotspot when it comes to questions of moorings and equal access. If the town wishes to maintain non-riparian moorings along Winnapaug Pond, Cute said, steps will have to be taken to ensure that the moorings eventually become available to new users. Riparian moorings are those that owners of shoreline property have a legal right to. Implementation of such a plan will be difficult, he said, because some of the roads around the pond are private. “You’re going to have to come up with some way for public access to them,” he said.
John Ornberg, a resident and close observer of coastal regulations, asked the council to insist on better shoreline access if it chooses to pursue deauthorization of Watch Hill Harbor. He called for establishment of a public dock and an area for commercial fishermen. He also asked for improvements to Fort Road to improve access to the water, and the lifting of parking bans at rights of way to the shoreline.
Ron Kenyon Jr., a resident who works as a commercial fisherman out of Westerly, pushed for inclusion of a section on commercial fishing in the plan, saying the endeavor is an economic engine and an important part of the town’s heritage.
The council is expected to continue its review of the plan in March and asked Cute to return. He was also asked to provide the council with a written narrative of his recommendations for changes to the current draft version of the plan and the options for Watch Hill Harbor.
The council’s review on Wednesday was partially stymied by the fact that councilors had different versions of the plan.