Westerly Town Council taking hard look at harbor; deauthorization proposal could help save moorings

Westerly Town Council taking hard look at harbor; deauthorization proposal could help save moorings

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WESTERLY — The Town Council continued its work on the proposed Harbor Management Plan Monday and received updates on reviews of the plan being conducted by municipal staff and the Planning Board.

At the request of a few residents, the council also started fine-tuning the language of a resolution that if approved would set in motion official steps to seek deauthorization of Watch Hill Cove as a federal navigation project. Deauthorization, which would require approval by both branches of the U.S. Congress, is seen as a critical move to help ensure approval of the plan by state and federal officials.

The current system of moorings in the cove, which is being managed and is mostly owned by Watch Hill Yacht Club and its members, conflicts with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers policies, which require an “open to all” approach for waters that are designated as federal navigation projects. Removal of the designation would subject the cove to less stringent policies administered by the state Coastal Resources Management Council. The CRMC allows moorings to be distributed through a ratio system that can be weighted in favor of town residents.

Members of the Town Council looked favorably on John Ornberg’s suggestion that the resolution include language reflecting the town’s desire to have the federally-designated channel in the cove remain in place. “Tonight’s resolution only refers to the Army Corps’ project without specifying the channel or the anchorage. I’m concerned with the vaguery of that. It could lead to missteps,” said Ornberg, a lifelong resident and a member of the Zoning Board of Review.

Town Councilor Jack Carson noted that keeping the channel designation in place would keep maintenance dredging of the channel a responsibility of the federal government.

The Planning Board is aiming to complete its review of the proposed plan in the coming weeks. James A. Hall IV, a Planning Board member, said the board had commenced its review and met recently with Lisa Pellegrini, director of the Department of Development Services, and Rui Almeida, town planner.

The board, Hall said, noted that the current draft version of the plan lacks a reference to provisions of the state constitution that establish rights to access the shoreline for all state residents. The board also focused on parts of the plan which deal with the position of harbor master and noted the Town Council will have an opportunity to clearly establish the harbor master’s duties and authority. “That’s one of the integral pieces along with the harbor management commission and the document that will allow this thing to really hit the ground running,” Hall said.

Terms in the plan, such as “resident,” should be defined to avoid potential confusion when enacting a mooring distribution system set out in the plan, Hall and Planning Board member Catherine DeNoia said.

Councilor William Aiello thanked the Planning Board members, saying their input was enlightening. “I’m really impressed by what we got. It opened my eyes,” Aiello said.

Pellegrini said her staff has determined that many subject areas of the plan, including rights of way or access paths to the shoreline, will require continued study by staff and lawyers. But she also noted that the plan can be updated once it is approved and adopted.

The Town Council plans to take up the proposed resolution on deauthorization of the cove during its Sept. 17 meeting.

The plan has been in the works for about 14 years. 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.



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