Harbors Department seeks new office at GSP

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 5:00pm
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When the Harbors Department lost the use of its office on the Great Salt Pond last summer, it resorted to running some of its operations out of Town Hall, including, primarily, the issuance of shell-fishing licenses. It wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t ideal.

“We really missed out with the connection to people” visiting the island by boat, Harbormaster Steve Land told the members of the Block Island Land Trust at their meeting on Thursday, Feb. 14. “Having an office on the water is imperative.”

It does look like the department will be able to return to its shack on the barge at the newly named New Harbor Boat Basin, which is under new management, but Land is seeking a more permanent solution that could be implemented over two to three years. His proposal to the Land Trust is to use the K&H Property. That property, a long narrow strip of land, is located close to the New Harbor Boat Basin.

The first step, and one Land would like to implement this summer, is having his staff park their vehicles at K& H instead of at the Boat Basin, where adequate parking is a problem. “It gets six to seven cars per shift off the Mott property,” said Land. “I think they’d appreciate that.”

The Farmers Market has been using K&H for vendor parking at its Saturday markets for the past two years, and just as the market vendors do, the gate would be locked behind them so that the general public would not be able to park there. Although so far there have not been any objections, Land Trust members thought it would be prudent to check the zoning regulations to make sure parking is allowable.

Land would also like to mow a path along the stone wall up to the point where the wetlands buffer begins, and then install a boardwalk out to the shore where a fixed-pier dock would extend diagonally along the shore. At the far end of the dock would be a new office.

All projects along the shore need approval from the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, and Land Trust attorney Joe Priestley said that the agency does allow paths for public access.

Land added that the agency also looks favorably on boardwalks if they too improve public access to the shore.

Land Trust Stewardship Coordinator Harold “Turtle” Hatfield pointed out that boardwalks were very expensive, but Scott Comings and The Nature Conservancy had installed one that was one-half to one mile long on the mainland last year using locust, which “has to be cut green” and perhaps Land should confer with him. “Locust is what you want to use,” he said.

“I like the idea,” said Land Trust Chair Barbara MacMullan, even proposing that a boardwalk could be extended over wetlands and a stream so that people could traverse it to reach Ball O’Brien Park.

The Harbors Committee has made proposals for a dinghy dock and harbors office at Ball O’Brien in the past couple of years, but the steep slope to the shore there is just one obstacle to building facilities for boaters. Land said that the K&H Property did not come with the same challenge.

Members of the Land Trust appeared ready and willing to endorse the plan, but Priestley said the matter should be put on next month’s agenda as an item “to act on Harbormaster’s proposal.”

“Just to be clear,” MacMullan said, “this year it will be parking only.”

“This is a plan in development,” said Land.

Improving public access to the shore is one of the aspects of the town’s Comprehensive Plan that Land Trust members noted while reviewing “action items” for the Land Trust in the plan. They and many other boards and commissions have received memos from the Planning Board that includes a list of items in the Plan that may come under the particular board’s jurisdiction.

While it wasn’t clear what exactly the Planning Board wanted the Land Trust to do with the list, MacMullan noted that many of the items, such as protecting view sheds were things that they were already doing. Running down the list, she noted that other organizations not listed in the Comp Plan, including the Block Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy, were also working on some of the items.

One item on the list is “Identify lands that will provide marsh migration areas for coastal wetlands of the Great Salt Pond in response to sea level rise,” and Kim Gaffett of The Nature Conservancy suggested this was an item that could be embraced by the Land Trust in identifying properties for conservation.

“We’re conscious of everything on the list,” said MacMullan. “I think we should just let [the Planning Board] know we’re on it.”

As part of the discussion, Gaffett said that some of the feedback the Land Trust could provide on the Comp Plan was whether particular items were things that were still relevant, or not.

The general public will have the opportunity to weigh in on this as the Land Trust prepares to conduct a public priorities poll, which it is supposed to do every five years. The exact questions to be asked still need to be “modified,” an exercise that MacMullan said they need “to get serious about.”

They are overdue on conducting the poll, and have been somewhat stymied in just how to do a poll in this era when people no longer answer their phones if they don’t recognize the caller or don’t have landlines. There is also the challenge of how to get a sample representative of the demographics of the community, especially in a place where property owners and registered voters are not necessarily the same, and where there is no street delivery of mail.

Based on inquiries by Land Trust Clerk Heidi Tarbox, the Land Trust is now considering a “three-pronged approach” that could incorporate polling by email as well. Trustee Wendy Crawford suggested utilizing both the Block Island Bulletin Board and The Block Island Times as ways to give people a “heads up” so that they might be more likely to respond.