Controversial harbor ordinance vote delayed
The Town Council this week delayed a vote on a package of amendments to the Harbor Management Ordinance, which includes a controversial proposal to revise the funding formula for harbor infrastructure projects.
The council’s June 20 meeting also illuminated the status of other unresolved issues, including the town’s wind turbine proposal, a pending analysis of potential Fort Getty uses, and the monthly fees imposed on ratepayers who use the smallest volumes of town water.
The ordinance revisions have been in the works for years. The fi- nancial amendments would strike the existing 10 percent allocation of mooring fees for harbor projects and replace it with language requiring marina operators to deposit mooring fees and wait-list fees, along with 50 percent of nonresident and commercial mooring fees, in a harbor management account maintained by the town’s Finance Department.
The proposal is opposed by Jamestown’s marina operators, two of whom spoke during the public hearing on the allocation revision. Bill Munger, who owns Conanicut Marine Services, delivered extensive remarks “on behalf of the 160 boating families who access the bay through Conanicut Marine.”
Among many other things, Munger argued that eliminating the 10 percent formula would undermine Goal Number 2 of the existing ordinance.
Goal Number 2 is intended to “distribute equitably the burdens and benefits of harbor management and development,” Munger said, adding that the revised allocation formula “would target boating families that access the harbor through the boatyards.”
Under the Harbor Commission budget adopted by the Town Council on March 7, the $3.35-per-foot mooring fee paid by Jamestown residents increased to $4.15 per foot, and the $6.70-per-foot fee paid by non-residents and commercial boat owners increased to $8.30 per foot. Outhaul fees increased by 5 percent.
The marina operators – whose annual lease payments to the town total about $100,000 per year – are concerned that the town will use more of the mooring revenue for capital projects which are not, in their opinion, harbor infrastructure. For example, there is a controversy over the “ownership” of the East Ferry seawall, which needs substantial repair work.
The operators are afraid that that mooring fees will keep increasing if the town diverts the revenue to “non-harbor” projects. Munger observed that, “Boat yards are not immune to the [economic] pressures up and down the bay. We are still vibrant, but we are in jeopardy. We are not tax exempt. We are not private. And we have built a vast infrastructure that is not supported by public funding.”
Steve Devoe, an owner of the Jamestown Boat Yard, raised the question of town and Harbor Commission responsibility for structures in and around the harbor, pointing out that the ordinance revision “defines revenues and the way they’re supposed to be split up but doesn’t define what [the Harbor Commission] is responsible for.”
The observation prompted Councilor Mike White to say, “We do need a definition of harbor infrastructure and town infrastructure.” He added that, “The Harbor Commission hasn’t been shy about asking for help, but if we ask for help it’s a crime.’”
White also said that he has had “a hard time deciding on the 10 percent question,” and expressed support for discussions on the dividing line between town and harbor infrastructure. Councilor Bill Murphy said, “I didn’t like the old 10 percent formula because it wasn’t based on logic. The revenue from Fort Getty and the golf course doesn’t have to stay at those places.”
Councilor Bob Bowen said the proposed revision to the allocation formula “is a good first shot,” adding that, “The 10 percent set-aside is inadequate to support harbor infrastructure. The increase in mooring fees is a step in the right direction, and I don’t think we should have two separate accounts [for the mooring fees].”
Council President Mike Schnack said that he agreed with Murphy views on the 10 percent formula, and agreed with the arguments for a capital budget plan detailing future expenditures for harbor infrastructure. But he said that he opposed passing the Harbor Management Ordinance piecemeal, which means that the infrastructure responsibilities of the town and Harbor Commission will have to be defined before the ordinance amendments proceed to a vote.
To that end, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser will meet with Harbor Commission Chairman Mike de Angeli to hammer out proposed language on infrastructure “ownership.” The proposal will be debated during a workshop, which was scheduled by the council for July 18 at 7 p.m.
Assuming that the workshop produces an agreement on infrastructure ownership, there is a smaller issue that will also have to be addressed before the council puts the entire package of amendments to a vote. The ordinance allows families to transfer their rights to a mooring in perpetuity, but a majority of the councilors want transfers limited to one per mooring holder, and only to the mooring holders’ children and spouses, not to their siblings.
Another workshop scheduled by the council – this one on Fort Getty – will be held on Monday, June 27, at 6 p.m. The workshop will include representatives of Landworks Collaborative, which recently led a facilitated workshop intended to gauge resident preferences for the future uses of Fort Getty.
As part of its contract with the town, Landworks will perform an economic analysis of the leading preferences identified by the 111 residents who voted at the facilitated workshop. Bowen, who referred to May 19 event as a “mini charrette,” said “we want to make sure that, before Landworks starts doing the economic analyses, we make some preliminary choices” for the economic assessments.
The potential Fort Getty uses and park elements receiving 30 or more votes during the facilitated workshop were: passive recreation and open space, 87 votes; sailing center, 57 votes; year-round restrooms, 44 votes; overlooks and viewing bench, 35 votes; enclosed wedding and function pavilion, 33 votes; trail system, 31 votes; and tent camping, 31 votes.
Bowen had raised another issue, which may lead to a future workshop, namely, the minimum monthly fee paid by village residents for town water. During a previous meeting of the Board of Water and Sewer, Bowen raised a concern that a percentage of ratepayers may be using much less water than the maximum volume of 5,000 gallons, subject to the minimum monthly fee, and requested a break-out of ratepayer water use.
Town Financial Director Tina Collins provided the numbers during the board meeting, which preceded the council meeting. Her analysis shows that 39.5 percent of the town’s residential water customers are using less than the threshold volume, although the category was defined only as a range: 0 to 5,000 gallons per month.
Schnack pointed out that the range doesn’t indicate the volumes of water that the customers in that group are using, and asked Collins to break out the numbers for that category. Schnack said that the breakout “will help us when we look at our water-rate study and allow for deeper discussions” on the issue. Bowen observed that, “If there’s a large group of people below the minimum, maybe we should charge less for minimum use [and more for water-use exceeding the minimum].”
A final topic for future discussions – the status of Jamestown’s proposed wind turbine – was not on the agenda, but Keiser provided an update for the Council.
The town, Keiser said, is still waiting for the National Grid estimate of the costs to upgrade Jamestown’s power lines so they can handle the surge of electricity from a 1.65-megawatt turbine. There is an unexpected wrinkle in the deadline that the town must meet to get its $750,000 federal grant for turbine construction.
Previously, the state Department of Energy had said that renewable energy projects would have to be online, or nearly online, by the end of March 2012. Keiser said that now the department is asking for “documentation” to demonstrate that this goal will be attained “or they’ll scoop back the money” awarded (if not actually distributed) to the projects.
Consequently, Keiser said, “We may have to fall back on the $500,000 by the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. I have a fairly strong commitment that the state money will be available, and the advantage of the state money is that we wouldn’t have to buy America – which sounds un-American – but it would potentially allow us to save $250,000 in the foreign marketplace.”