Eyeing public access to the Coast Guard Station

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 6:30pm

Trying to provide access to the Coast Guard Station is a goal the town and Harbors Department are working to achieve.

The topic was discussed at two recent budget hearings.

Town Manager Ed Roberge informed the Town Council that $150,000 was recommended for replacement and expansion of the old, dilapidated Coast Guard dock. At the April 1 budget hearing, Roberge split the project into a two-year process with $100,000 budgeted for 2020, and $50,000 budgeted for 2021.

The Town of New Shoreham owns the Coast Guard Station property, which includes the main building, a garage, a boathouse, and a separate dwelling for housing State Police officers during the summer. The town’s Building Official, Marc Tillson, has a residence in the main building, which is also used for seasonal employee housing in the summer.

On the land side, there is currently signage on the property warning the public not to trespass.

Harbormaster Steve Land told The Times that more parking (there is currently space available for a few cars to park outside the fenced-off property) and access to the beachfront property could be accomplished by removing the signs and allowing the public onto the grounds. Land said the council and town manager could direct the Harbors Department to remove the signage, but the decision to do that hasn’t yet been made.

Land said if public access was provided on the property, the grounds would allow parking for about 30 vehicles.

First Warden Ken Lacoste told The Times that Roberge “would be looking at the situation at the Coast Guard Station and do whatever is appropriate. I do not know how soon that might happen.”

Roberge said that, “For now, we will maintain signage that exists today and be sure to keep access to the beach posted and in good repair. Staff has been looking at ways to open areas of the Coast Guard Station for better public access. We currently use the site for a variety of uses, which don’t lend themselves to full open public access. However, we have been working on identifying opportunities for improved parking, building use, as well as beach access and hope we can bring those options to the council soon.”

During the March 25 meeting, Resident David Lewis said he thinks the public would like to see the property opened up to public access. “It’s something we’re all looking forward to.” Lewis asked if the council had given the town manager guidance regarding the Coast Guard’s security-related signage on the property.

Councilor Chris Willi said, “If the Coast Guard is going to be there and partner with us, it will dictate what areas are secure. But I think there might be some reconfiguring of it. If the Coast Guard is going to be there, there’s got to be a security factor, unfortunately.”

“I don’t know that we should be selling our soul to the Coast Guard,” said Lewis in response.

“They are there now, aren’t they?” asked Councilor Martha Ball, referring to the Coast Guard.

Land said the Coast Guard uses the dock when necessary, but docks its vessels at Champlin’s Marina. He noted that Champlin’s Marina “is not secure.” Land said he would like “to open up the Coast Guard property to the public. We’ve looked at different things, such as moving the fence. The property has become incredibly popular.”

“Right now it’s inaccessible because of history, and because that’s the way it’s always been done,” said Land. “Having the Coast Guard there should not, will not, stop the public from going on the property. There are definitely ways to make that place more accessible to the public.”

“I agree,” said Roberge, noting that while the town has been mindful of the Coast Guard, “this is a public accessible site. That’s really important. The conversation that is going on right now is adaptive reuse. And the harbormaster is right; the Coast Guard docks at Champlin’s Marina today without any noted security.”

Willi asked Land why the Coast Guard facility was currently restricted, not allowing public access on the property. 

“I can’t answer that,” said Land. “That’s definitely something that should be looked into. It’s not because of the Harbor’s Department.”

Roberge said that he would be looking into the matter.

Dock project

The town has recommended $100,000 in the 2020 budget for replacement of the floating 38-foot long dock at the Coast Guard Station. The project will involve installing a lengthier fixed pier in stages. Roberge said a reinvestment is needed after evaluation of the 30-plus year-old floating dock.

“We successfully got it out of the water today,” said Land. “It’s presently sitting behind Mike Shea’s Highway’s Department building right now. We’re going to start refastening it, and get it back into the water.”

Roberge noted that the new dock would be developed in coordination with the Coast Guard. “It does a lot of things,” he said. “It allows us additional expansion flexibility, and it offers them a much greater emergency response to be at that position, as opposed to being tied up at Champlin’s Marina.”

Land said after the meeting that the intent is to eventually build an L-shaped fixed pier at that location. He noted that the 38-foot floating dock would remain at the location.

At the meeting, Lacoste asked Roberge if the new dock would “be capable of sustaining a 47-foot vessel?” Lacoste was referring to the size of the Coast Guard’s vessel, known as a cutter.

“That’s correct,” said Roberge, noting that it would accommodate the Coast Guard’s “cutter, as well as our boats.”

Roberge also said the town is exploring docking facilities for crew transfer vessels at Old Harbor and New Harbor. Crew transfer vessels are boats that transport technicians to offshore wind farms. He said the newly expanded Coast Guard Station dock could be used for that purpose.

Roberge said the developing offshore wind farm projects in the region call for docking hub facilities on the island. “We expect that business to grow significantly. Right now the Block Island Wind Farm is serviced by Atlantic Wind Transfers, which supplies the crew transfer vessel. So we see an immediate need, as Block Island is positioned geographically to support, and be a part of that industry.”

The next Town Council meeting is Wednesday, April 24 at 7 p.m. when the 2020 warrant will be up for adoption.