WESTERLY — Moorings just outside of Watch Hill Cove that had been mandated for removal within a few days will be allowed to stay for the current boating season under a new plan developed by Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, Police Chief Shawn Lacey, who also serves as harbor master, and Kimberlie Rayner-Russell, assistant harbor master. The new plan requires approval by state officials.
The decision came after a strong reaction, including claims of elitism, by some of the mooring holders. Under the new plan, about five private moorings that were in the area in 2015, when a draft of the Harbor Management Plan was submitted to the Town Council, will be allowed to stay until their owners no longer need them. Five moorings managed by the Watch Hill Yacht Club will also be allowed to remain. Both sets of moorings are in the Watch Hill Cove Breakwater West area.
However, additional moorings in Breakwater West that town officials say were put in place after the harbor plan was submitted will be required to be removed at the end of the current boating season. "I feel like it is a fair solution," Rayner-Russell said Friday during a conference call with Rooney.
The moorings that cropped up in the area after the harbor plan draft was submitted four years ago appear to have been established by people who hoped they would be "grandfathered in" before the plan was adopted, Rayner-Russell said.
Lacey, in his role as harbor master, wrote on May 29 to mooring holders in the Watch Hill Cove Breakwater West mooring field to inform them that the area would be decommissioned as a mooring area and used only as a transient anchorage area. He said that the moorings would either have to be removed by their owners by June 14, or the town would do so. The area is listed in the interim Harbor Management Plan as one of eight mooring fields in the town, but is also described in the plan as a transient anchorage area.
Lou Misto, a resident who served on the Harbor Management Commission that worked on the plan, was instrumental in opposing the effort to get rid of the moorings. Misto has had a mooring in Breakwater West for about 10 years. Others who hold moorings in the area said their moorings have existed there for more than 20 years.
Misto and some of the other mooring holders met with Lacey and Rayner-Russell, and Misto wrote a letter to the editor of The Sun in which he leveled criticisms of elitism and favoritism. On Friday, Misto said he was pleased with the new approach for the mooring field.
"I feel good about it. There have definitely been some moorings dropped in there in the last couple of years that I agree should not be there or allowed to stay," he added. "I think it's a good plan."
"The town is making a good faith effort. I feel bad about having to have been the squeaky wheel but feel some things had to said," Misto said.
Misto said he continues to question why the Harbor Management Plan does not include provisions to give boaters greater access to docks in the Watch Hill Cove. "They won't budge on that," he said.
Rooney said the Watch Hill Cove Breakwater West mooring area does not meet the Harbor Management Plan's standard intent for mooring fields because it is used as a place for temporary visits rather than a permanent place for boat owners to secure their boats.
"It's inconsistent to their peers who want to go there for the day," Rooney said. He added that the use of the area as a more extensive mooring field rather than as a transient anchorage area available on a first-come first-serve basis makes the area "more exclusive."
Rayner-Russell said the spot is extremely popular as an anchorage. "There's over 400 people there on a busy weekend," she said. Allowing additional moorings would crowd out those who want to use the area as an anchorage, she said.
The controversy has brought new attention to the Harbor Management Plan, how moorings are distributed, and the role of yacht clubs. Of the approximately 120 moorings in Watch Hill Cove, 72 are managed by the Watch Hill Yacht Club and others are owned privately by members of the club. The club-managed moorings are subject to the same municipal mooring permit process and fees as non-club moorings.
Moorings were allocated to the yacht clubs in the plan in recognition of the clubs' long standing role in the community, Rayner-Russell said. The moorings are essential to their existence, she said.
In the inaugural season under the Harbor Management Plan, Rayner-Russell said officials hope to hammer out exactly where each mooring is supposed to be. In subsequent years, the fields could be adjusted. "We might reorganize the fields to make more room," Rayner-Rusell said.
Rooney defended his decision to appoint Rayner-Russell to the position of assistant harbor master, for which she is paid a stipend. Misto and former Town Councilor Jean Gagnier recently called for Rayner-Russell to seek an advisory opinion from the state Ethics Commission as to whether her part-time job as assistant harbor master is in conflict with her status as a member of the Watch Hill Yacht Club.
"It doesn't exist. There is no conflict," Rooney said, adding that he conferred with Town Attorney William J. Conley Jr. before appointing Rayner-Russell. Conley previously served as chief legal counsel to the state Ethics Commission.
"There is no conflict," Rooney said, because Rayner-Russell does not stand to benefit financially. "There is no monetary gain," he said, going on to note that Rayner-Russell works in collaboration with himself and Lacey and does not have final independent decision making authority.
Rayner-Russell was a longtime member of the Harbor Management Commission and was instrumental in writing the document. Rooney said, "I wanted to find someone who had experience and knowledge of boating and harbors."
The town's previous harbor master worked for a local boatyard. "And I ended that," Rooney said.
Gagnier wrote to Town Council President Christopher Duhamel to raise questions about the Breakwater West area and Rayner-Russell's role as assistant harbor master.
"I don't own a boat and I don't have a mooring, I just want to see the town run fairly, and I'll keep pushing for public access that is consistent with the state Constitution," Gagnier said Friday.
The Constitution establishes a public right of access to the shoreline. Gagnier called Rooney's appointment of Rayner-Russell "problematic."
"There are a lot of people in our community with skills in this area. It's very important that government looks like everything is being done above board by people who are free of any entanglements," Gagnier said.
Rayner-Russell said she does not believe she has a conflict and said that she does not own or need a mooring because she has a dock at her residence. She also clarified that she does not live in Watch Hill, contrary to a claim made by Misto in his letter to the editor. "It's innuendo and baseless. Just trying to stir the pot," she said, regarding the claim of a conflict.
Rooney said he plans to discuss the new plan for Watch Hill Cove Breakwater West with the Town Council during a council meeting later this month or in early July.