Town Council exploring slip merger at Old Harbor

For updating Harbor Management Plan
Thu, 10/31/2019 - 6:15pm

Everything from merging the commercial and charter boat slips at Old Harbor to enforcing a speed limit on the Great Salt Pond was part of a two-hour discussion involving an update of the town’s Harbor Management Plan during the Town Council’s Oct. 16 meeting.

Town Manager Ed Roberge went over a page-by-page review of the plan with the council. He spent the past year holding public hearings regarding the plan, which is supposed to be updated every 10 years. (Roberge told The Times the plan was last updated in 1999.)

With just a few members of the public in attendance, the Town Council and the Town Manager reviewed proposed revisions of the 38-page document, touching on assorted topics, including procedures for outhauls, moorings, and anchorages, riparian rights, and offseason dock storage.

A topic that sparked fervent dialogue was redefining, or merging, the commercial and charter boat slips into one category at Old Harbor. There are 15 slips at Old Harbor: nine for commercial vessels, six for charter boats.

“I wanted to bring this to your attention,” said Roberge. “We see a changing business profile” in Old Harbor. “I know right now we define commercial and charter boats separately.” The question is: he noted, since not all of the slips are used, did the town want to merge the slips under one definition.

Roberge said under the plan, charter slip vessels are required to carry passengers for hire at least 30 days per season from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, while commercial fishermen have a 50-day requirement.

“Is it still important for the council to distinguish between commercial and charter? Or is it one business?” asked Roberge of the council. “We’ve seen the evolution of fishing charters that no longer fish. They still charter,” he said, providing wind farm tours, etc. “As that industry changes, and the number of full-time commercial fishermen reduce, we could, technically, run out of fishermen for available slips. In that case, do we fill it with a charter boat, and then in the event that a commercial fisherman comes along, do we need to extract somebody? It’s certainly something that” we need to address.

“There are nine commercial slips,” said Councilor Chris Willi, who operates Block Island Fishworks in New Harbor. “Maybe three or four of them are actual commercial fishermen.” Willi said some of the fishermen only fish for 30 days, which he called a “hobby,” and “not a business. I don’t think you need to” differentiate between a charter and a commercial vessel for use of the slips at Old Harbor, he added.

Second Warden André Boudreau said he spoke with fishermen at Old Harbor, “They said the same thing: why are there two definitions?” Boudreau said he is interested in exploring one definition for the 15 slips at Old Harbor.

“We’re talking to the fishermen now,” said Roberge. “We’re also talking about a way to verify their productivity, if you want to call it; how many” trips they take. “We want to be able to capture that in an equitable way, not to create new work, but everybody has berthing requirements, and that mechanism should be had.”

“I would suggest any mechanism that you can legally make part of our ordinances,” said Boudreau, who noted that permits for the slips should be granted to fishermen who use them properly.

Councilor Sven Risom said he was conflicted about regulating the slips. “I like one definition; I agree with André. But I think there’s an element of fishing on this island that I don’t want to lose. I don’t want to lose that history.” He noted that he doesn’t “want to suddenly see 15 banana boats” operating out of those slips.

“Well, then you need to regulate it,” said First Warden Ken Lacoste, who owns and operates Block Island Marine at New Harbor.

“I like the idea of one license,” said Risom. “I just worry that we’re going to regulate history away.”

“Not so much regulate it away,” said Lacoste, who noted that the industry is evolving and “one or two charter boats” at Old Harbor do “fun things,” but they’re not operating a fishing business.

Former First Warden Kim Gaffett said it was “important to maintain the historical” standard at Old Harbor. She said by not doing so the council would have to keep changing the definition to accommodate the evolution of the industry.

“Marine fisheries may evolve into things other than (fishing and lobster fishing); it may include, in the future, offshore seaweed or mussel farming or other things,” said Gaffett. “We don’t know what might come along.”

On the topic of outhauls, Roberge said permits would be issued annually, with up to two outhauls allowed per waterfront property, and to the “contiguous waterfront property owner.” He noted that, “Outhauls are not permitted in Type one waters,” nor on properties that “contain a recreational boating facility.”

With regard to the seasonal storage of docks at Rat Island, Roberge said a new section in the plan calls for an end to the practice by “the end of May of 2021. It sunsets after that date,” he said.  

As for moorings, Roberge said, “Private moorings will be rented only when the town moorings are full. Private moorings will be rented at the same rate as the town moorings (in accordance with the fee schedule). One vessel per mooring will be permitted, unless the mooring is 800 pounds or greater.”

Boudreau said he thought there should be a term limit for how long a boater can reside on a town mooring, which will be discussed further. 

Councilor Risom’s desire to institute a speed limit in the recreational area on the Great Salt Pond was met with concerns about challenges associated with enforcement. Lacoste noted that more injuries occur in the anchorage, where people are prohibited from swimming. 

The Town Council will continue to discuss the plan at upcoming meetings. The public can find the latest draft of the Harbor Management Plan on the Town of New Shoreham’s website.