WESTERLY— The clock is ticking as town officials work to implement aspects of the town's interim Harbor Management Plan in time for the upcoming boating season.
Specifically, the state Coastal Resources Management Council has told town officials they must hire or appoint an interim harbor master; conduct a registration of moorings for the 2019 boating season; establish a waiting list for moorings for the 2019 season; establish a policy prohibiting new moorings in the 2019 season; and request information on public access to mooring fields, mooring coordinates, and statistics and maintenance of moorings from individuals and organizations that have been managing the fields.
The Town Council adopted the interim plan in October with the consent of CRMC, which expects a complete plan to be submitted before the interim one elapses and for the new plan to be in place by February 2020. A complete plan, once approved by CRMC, would be good for five years before the next regular update would be required. The current iteration of the plan has been underway for about 15 years.
On Monday the council unanimous consented to have Town Manager J. Mark Rooney authorize members of his staff to work on responding to CRMC's requests in time for this year's boating season. The work must be done by April 15, according to Lisa Pellegrini, director of development services.
There are currently eight mooring fields in the town. They have been managed by fire districts, neighborhood associations, and yacht clubs, according to Kevin Cute, the CRMC's marine resources specialist.
CRMC's goal, Cute told the council on Monday, is to eventually authorize all of the mooring fields and the moorings in them. The fields and moorings are currently all considered to be unauthorized because the town has never adopted an approved harbor management plan despite a longstanding state policy requiring all coastal communities in Rhode Island to adopt plans.
Cute reviewed some of the critical areas the plan must cover. A foundational issue is public access to the water, since the surface below the water, he said, is considered to be a "resource owned by the state for benefit of all citizens." Public access can be tricky because many mooring fields are adjacent to private roads and private communities.
"If a farmer from Burrillville wants to have a mooring in Westerly he has a constitutional expectation that he's going to have that opportunity to do so," Cute said. "If there is no way for that individual who doesn't live in that private community in Westerly to get to that mooring field, then we have a problem."
Pellegrini said the town staff will use information they receive from the current managers of mooring fields to help determine whether there is adequate public access. If the access is not adequate, the staff will begin studying rights of way and other ways to create access, she said.
According to Rooney, the yacht clubs in town have been cooperative. "The yacht clubs are not resisting us, they are very much our partners with CRMC," Rooney said.
Rooney said he would likely rely on Police Chief Shawn Lacey on a short-term basis to perform some of the harbor master's functions. He also said he planned to develop a job description and scope of work in preparation for hiring a harbor master.
Councilor Sharon Ahern asked that the police chief not be assigned harbor master duties on a long-term basis, saying such an approach had failed previously.
The Town Council will be asked to approve proposed amendments to the town's Boats and Waterways ordinance in early April. The changes will pertain to the work that Rooney's staff will be asked to carry out, according to Nancy LeTendre, the town's planning and zoning solicitor.