Housing, dockage, and traffic

Fri, 11/10/2017 - 9:30am

The lack of adequate rental housing, dinghy dock space, and traffic congestion caused by the influx of island visitors were the major issues that challenged Block Island during the 2017 summer season. That’s what the Town Council learned when the town’s departments presented their summer wrap-up reports at a recent Council meeting.

“The biggest issue is finding housing for the counselors” for various programming needs said Recreation Director Dave Sniffen. Library Director Kristin Baumann echoed Sniffen’s sentiments, and said, “The town needs to look at employee wages, and housing. We struggle with retention (of employees) because of” the lack of sufficient rental housing. Put that on your radar.”

In response, First Warden Ken Lacoste said the housing issue was already on the Town Council’s radar. The Town Council has made the housing issue one of its main priorities, including it on its agenda, and exploring possible solutions, Lacoste said.

Building Official Marc Tillson sparked a debate over how seasonal employees qualify for housing. The subject arose when Tillson explained that an employee who lived at the Coast Guard Station this past summer was employed by a town department, but worked only one shift per week and had trouble paying rent.

“We established a new administrative policy this year, or actually I did, dealing with how an employee can qualify for a room at the Station,” said Tillson. “In order to qualify for a room, you have to work for the town for a minimum of 20 hours a week.”

“This is a new policy?” asked Councilor Chris Willi, seemingly surprised by Tillson’s comments.

“Yes,” said Tillson. “It’s never come up before.”

“I think that’s an old policy,” said Councilor Martha Ball.

“This has actually been a policy,” said Willi. “Anybody that lived there had to work fulltime” for the town to qualify for a room. “The fact that we have a housing shortage for seasonal employees, and there’s somebody living there that worked one shift, infuriates me. I know it’s not your fault — but this is the first time that I’ve heard of this.” 

“Well, obviously now the policy will be fully explored, and vetted for” the next summer season, said Lacoste.

Harbormaster Steve Land told the Council that, “It was a good summer” for the Harbors Department. “The only real issue was the lack of dinghy dock” space at the Block Island Boat Basin. “I got complaints about it every single day.” Land said the Boat Basin, which owns the dinghy dock, cut the space that was open to the public in half. 

“That will be fodder for another meeting,” said Lacoste. The dinghy dock issue has been discussed by the Harbors Department at its meetings. Land said the department has not yet been able to come up with a solution.

During his Police report, Chief Vincent Carlone kept it brief, noting that, “The summer went very well. It was very calm — no problems. The biggest problem was the traffic situation.” 

Traffic Safety expert Al Davis, speaking on behalf of the Police Department, detailed traffic issues. Davis, whose traffic safety plan was implemented this past summer with the installation of an assortment of highly visible road signs, said, “A lot of (the traffic problems) have to do with the boat traffic.”

Davis said the problem is exacerbated when several boats arrive at Old Harbor at the same time and unload passengers and vehicles that cause congestion in the downtown area. He noted that “a Detail Officer” at Pt. Judith that Interstate Navigation provides, directs the vehicular traffic that comes off the ferry. “I’m not saying we should do that here, but it could relieve the” congestion.

Block Island Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Szabo, whose office is located at the Old Harbor dock area, said the “traffic is horrendous.” Molly O’Neill, a Chamber employee, backed Szabo’s assertion, and asked Davis why the State Police stationed there couldn’t direct the traffic.

Davis said when he is on duty at Old Harbor he sometimes directs traffic, but felt that the redirection doesn’t always solve the problem. “You’re just moving it onto another street,” he said.

“Maybe it’s something we should look at, moving forward,” said Lacoste.

In other news, the Town Council voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Broadband Committee Chair Bill McKernan, due to his relocation off-island during the winter months. No determination was made in reducing the eight-member board, and McKernan could potentially rejoin the board when he returns to the island in the spring.

The next Town Council meeting is Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m.