Harbor debate sinks ordinance vote
Deep divisions over infrastructure “ownership” and environmental safeguards this week prevented the Jamestown Town Council from adopting revisions to the Harbor Management Plan and Harbor Ordinance.
The Council met Feb. 22 with an expectation of voting on both drafts, which have been in the works for two years, but the litany of issues raised by stakeholders in the standing-room-only audience made a vote impossible.
Councilor Mike White described the conflicts among the stakeholders – marina operators, mooring holders and the town itself – as “overwhelming.” Councilor Bill Murphy said “too many questions need to be answered” before the Council could vote.
The most salient issues left standing at the end of the meeting were, among others: the heritability of moorings when a mooring holder dies; the necessity for the Harbor Commission and the Conservation Commission to re-define conservation zones; the absence of long-term budget projections for harbor infrastructure projects; an apparent jurisdictional conflict between the federal government and local conservation zones; and a delineation of the properties whose repair would – or would not – be funded by mooring fees.
Council adoption of the draft ordinance is the first step towards an increase in the mooring fees. Currently, the maximum percentage of mooring fees that may be used for harbor projects is 10 percent. Under the proposed revision to the allocation formula, the funding available for this work would increase substantially by requiring marinas to deposit onehalf of nonresident mooring fees, wait-list fees, outhaul fees, and one-half of commercial mooring fees into a segregated infrastructure account.
Once the draft ordinance is adopted, the Council can consider the fee increases recommended by the Harbor Commission. Under its recommendation, the mooring fee paid by Jamestown residents of $3.35 per foot would increase to $4 per foot, and the $6.70 per foot fee paid by nonresidents would increase to $8 per foot.
The marina operators – whose annual lease payments to the town total about $100,000 a year – believe that existing revenue streams, including mooring fees, are adequate to fund infrastructure work.
They are worried that the recommended fee increases will end up significantly higher if the town decides that some of the town properties in, or adjacent, to harbor waters qualify as “harbor infrastructure,” thereby increasing the demand for mooring-fee revenue.
The town and the marina operators have to decide where the town ends and the harbors begin. The operators also want the Harbor Commission to project its capital costs over a five-year period.
Councilor Ellen Winsor said, “The capital budget over the next five years needs to be defined, and then there’s the conservation issue. My take is we need a workshop attended by the Harbor and Conservation Commissions and the marina operators. We need to work things out like a family.”
The conservation issue arose because the ordinance, which currently prohibits overnight anchorage in conservation zones, proposes to prohibit anchorage in those zones altogether. Several stakeholders said the prohibitions – current and proposed – are intended to protect eel grass, but former Conservation Commission Chairman Chris Powell said the restrictions were put in place to reduce the ecosystem impacts of hydrocarbon spills and holdingtank drainage.
“The big issue we have is over by the Ft. Getty conservation area,” Harbormaster Sam Patterson said. “I’ve seen as many as 30 boats rafting there overnight.”
Another problem area is Dutch Harbor. Dennis Nixon – an associate dean of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography – said the area “isn’t used very frequently.”
Council President Mike Schnack disagreed, saying, “Except in the summer when you have 50 boats anchored in there.”
Councilor Bob Bowen agreed with Schnack, saying, “Our experience is that Dutch Harbor is used throughout the summer and some people are dragging their anchors.”
There is another issue raised by an anchorage prohibition in the Dutch Harbor conservation zone: It is listed by the Coast Guard as an anchorage area. It is also “the best place to find shelter” from a Nor’easter, Nixon said, adding, “You should take out the proposed anchorage prohibition. A little [sediment disturbance] is really not detrimental, and you have a very serious enforcement issue, along with the jurisdictional confl ict with the Coast Guard.”
A turning point in this debate arose when someone in the audience stated that the Coast Guard could be petitioned to modify its anchorage listings. At that point, the discussion swerved towards a general agreement that the conservation zones need to be reviewed and possibly redefined.
Conservation Commission member Maureen Coleman warned that conservation zone definitions “are very complicated,” adding that “the [Conservation Commission] should be involved in any changes to the definitions.”
At the same time, said Charlotte Zarlengo, the Harbor Commission should acknowledge that it has allowed additional moorings in Head’s Beach – which is not a conservation zone – and disallow the addition of any more.
“Why should the only active swimming area in the shores have moorings at all,” Zarlengo asked. “I’ve seen the moorings encroaching on the residences, and I now see 14 to 16 moorings there. I started going to Harbor Commission meetings in 2006 and 2007 to raise this issue, and I was met with rudeness and arrogance.”
Harbor Commission Chairman Mike deAngeli said that the Head’s Beach moorings have not been increasing. “They are grandfathered moorings and we don’t have any intention of removing them because they are considered personal property,” deAngeli said.
He also said that some of the conservation zones, such as the one extending from Dutch Harbor to Dutch Island, “could be cut back to 500 feet [from the shoreline] because I don’t think there’s any eel grass in the deep water [halfway out to the island].”
Regarding the projection of capital costs, deAngeli said, “This is a difficult problem because things happen, meaning unexpected damages to marine structures.”
Referring to the $120,000 in the Harbor Commission’s coffers, deAngeli said, “The fact that we have cash in hand doesn’t mean that [the 10 percent allocation is enough]. The 10 percent formula had us running short, and a 20 percent formula would be opposed by private mooring holders.”
Councilor Bowen said the Harbor Commission “is running short a lot of the time,” adding, “We have no intention of taking harbor revenues and dumping them into the general fund.”
Jamestown Boat Yard owner Steve Devoe said, “We don’t want harbor revenue to become a honey pot for the town or the Commission.”
He added, “Over the last two years, there have been $500,000 worth of Commission expenditures on projects that could be considered partially town projects. Where does the town end and the harbor start?”
Conanicut Marine Services owner Bill Munger questioned the asserted money shortages, saying, “The fees collected by the Harbor Commission have generated surpluses. You say you’re short, but you’re cash ahead, and we have eight pages of documentation saying you have plenty of money. We’re just looking for fairness.”
Schnack, however, is looking for a package of revisions that the Council can adopt.
“It is appropriate to send the ordinance back to the Harbor Commission with the issues identified tonight, and have them bring back a revised document as soon as possible. Don’t come to us with something you’re not married to. Don’t make this the Council’s political football. Give us something well thought out and something we can pass.”
The next meeting of the Harbor Management Commission will be held on March 9 at 7 pm.