WESTERLY — Divided on the timing, the Town Council voted 4-3 Monday to seek deauthorization by the U.S. Congress of Watch Hill Cove’s status as a federal dredge project. Councilors who voted against the measure said they were generally in favor of seeking deauthorization but preferred to wait until the council had completed its work on the proposed Harbor Management Plan.
To craft a Harbor Management Plan that stands a chance of approval by state and federal agencies, town officials had to address the cove. In its current configuration, with most moorings controlled by Watch Hill Yacht Club and its members, the cove violates the U.S. Army Corps’ “open to all policy” which seeks to make the water accessible regardless of an individual’s residency or where they own property.
The Army Corps and the state Coastal Resources Management Council have both put the town on notice saying the current set up in the harbor must be changed.
“Whether its deauthorized or not will determine parts of the [Harbor Management] plan. If we keep waiting the Army Corps could take matters into their own hands,” said Councilor William Aiello, who voted in favor of seeking deauthorization immediately.
Councilor Mario Celico, who voted against the motion to seek deauthorization, said that he was likely to vote in favor of seeking deauthorization of the cove but not until other parts of the plan are firmed up. “This is a part of a much larger picture and we’re kind of addressing it in a vacuum,” Celico said. “I don’t think we do ourselves any justice doing that.”
More specifically, Celico said, he wanted to know if the plan would include provisions to increase parking near the water and improve access to the shoreline.
Some residents, as various iterations of the plans have been reviewed, suggested leveraging the status of Watch Hill Cove as a means to force residents of Watch Hill to allow greater access to the cove and the shoreline and more parking in the village.
Councilor Philip Overton also encouraged waiting. “I think it should be done in one sweep because there is no guarantee the plan will pass. It’s premature,” Overton said.
Councilor Jean Gagnier joined Celico and Overton in voting against the move to seek deauthorization. He predicted that waiting a few weeks was not likely to cause a significant delay given the slow pace of governmental activity on the federal level. Gagnier also noted that the Planning Board has not yet completed its review of the plan. Last week, Planning Board members indicated they are likely to recommend a few additions to the plan.
Councilor President Edward Morrone acknowledged the need to eventually gain consensus on rights of way, parking and the number of moorings but said seeking deauthorization is the “first step.”
“We will know the answers to the questions as the process evolves,” Morrone said.
Councilor Karen Cioffi agreed with Morrone.
“We certainly know that we’re committed to doing the very best that we need to do to meet the community’s needs to open up rights of way, to make sure that there’s parking...there are many different facets that we are committed to making sure happen and the first step is to agree that we have to pass a resolution that we are going to deauthorize,” Cioffi said.
Rather than the stringent open to all policy, representatives of CRMC have said they would consider a mooring distribution system that gives town residents a greater likelihood of receiving a mooring but also ensures non-residents have a chance.
CRMC requires all coastal municipalities in the state to have harbor management plans to guide preservation and development of water resources. Of the towns required to have harbor management plans, Westerly is the only one without one.