CRMC Approves Controversial Marina Expansion
Board members say small craft and swimmers are infringing on the boatyard’s perimeter. Call out Jet Skis and kayakers for scaring away fish.
October 29, 2020
JAMESTOWN, R.I. — The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) sided with a commercial marina and approved a controversial dock extension and dredging project in a popular waterfront area.
Over the course of two online meetings, 27 seasonal and full-time residents who frequent the picturesque Dumplings Cove testified against the project. They argued that the geology of the narrow and shallow harbor, coupled with a spike in the popularity of boating, has made the harbor too dangerous to accommodate the larger boats the Jamestown Boat Yard plans to service.
The application process was delayed by the sale of the boatyard to Safe Harbor Marinas. Safe Harbors is the largest owner and operator of marinas in the world, including nine in Rhode Island.
Many spoke of swimming in the idyllic cove since their youth. A pier and beach owned by The Dumplings Association has operated amicably next to the boatyard for decades. But the growing number of vacationers and boaters, along with increased demand for services at the Jamestown Boat Yard, has reached a tipping point, according to concerned neighbors.
“It’s just too tight quarters and too many moving parts,” said Lisa Allen LeFort, an accomplished sailboat racer and seasonal island resident. “The cove has been discovered and unfortunately it’s turned into a parking lot.”
Speakers at the Oct. 27 meeting were among the 550 part- and full-time residents who signed a petition on behalf of Friends of Dumplings Cove in opposition to the project. More than 200 viewers participated in the recent online hearing, which followed another virtual hearing held Oct. 20.
Music legend James Taylor spoke of working closely with CRMC to adhere to wetland boundaries that cover two-thirds of a lot on Dumpling Drive where he is building a home.
“I understand that these requirements and restrictions are there to protect us all,” Taylor said. “And I agree enthusiastically with your mission to protect our environment. But having been expected to obey these standards to the letter it would be galling, to say the least, to see Jamestown Boat Yard and Safe Harbors get away with flaunting those same protective measures that the rest of us must follow. The parking for the boatyard is already overflowing and the safety and environmental issues are real and serious. Please hold them to the same standards of responsibility to their neighbors, Narragansett Bay, and the environment that the reset of us are expected to honor.”
Two marine biologists testified on behalf of the citizens group about the risks of dredging 2,000 cubic yards of sediment next to eelgrass beds, some of the most threatened and ecologically valuable aquatic habitats in Narragansett Bay. More than half of Rhode Island’s eelgrass grows around Jamestown.
Scott Ruhren, senior director of conservation for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, spoke about the disruption to common and rare birds that nest along the shore and on the glacial boulders, known as dumplings, that dot the harbor. Two of the dumplings are protected habitat owned by Audubon.
But two members of the CRMC board with experience in the maritime industry defended the marina expansion. They lamented the intrusion of swimmers, kayakers, and paddle boarders. Such activities, they said, shouldn’t impinge upon a marina perimeter, a boarder designation established by CRMC.
“We have these problems all over the place,” CRMC board member Michael Hudner said. “I just think we shouldn’t get too objective and deciding what’s too crowded. These people are so fortunate to live on the water. There’s big economic engines attached to these marine services so I think within reason we should encourage it. And it seems to be clearly within the rules of the Red Book [the state coastal zoning regulations].”
Hudner, who owns a cargo shipping company, likened the decades-long use of swimmers moving through the marina’s boundary as “people who want to sail through, paddle through, swim through the marina permitter. That’s almost like somebody saying I’ve got a use easement over property because I have been doing it for awhile. And I don’t get that.
“The fact that people have taken advantage of there being no docks in all of it and now claim a right to it, I don’t think that is a healthy road to go down.”
Fellow CRMC board member Donald Gomez argued that the marina expansion is allowed per the state’s Type 3 shoreline designation that authorizes marinas and boatyards.
Gomez and Hudner spoke of their nautical encounters with ultra-small crafts in waters off Little Compton, where they live.
Hudner suggested imposing restrictions on the number of people who can use the water for recreation.
“These people in small things are all over the place and that’s been an enormous proliferation,” he said. “So, I think this is an authorized taking in a sense of a right that goes with the marina perimeter that was given to the applicant a long time ago. And if there were objections to it they should have been raised earlier. This has been in place for a long time. It’s like an unauthorized taking. And it’s a two-way street. It’s not just a little more use of the marina, it’s a hell of a lot more use on the water by recreational people. Of which I’m one. It’s a balancing act.”
Hudner added that he doesn’t see dock extensions at the Jamestown Boat Yard impacting personal recreation. He said the overcrowding is a self-induced problem.
“The population on the water of these ultra-small craft has mushroomed beyond anything you ever could have imagined,” Hudner said. “People on paddle boards, little sailboats, and whatever the hell else the’’re riding, Jet Skis. So that’s part of the problem, too. But we don’t have any way to reduce that type of traffic so they want to take that out on people who have existing legal rights to run a marine service businesses there.”
Gomez offered his experiences in Little Compton, where Jet Skis and kayakers are chasing fish away and causing parking problems in Sakonnet Harbor.
“There’s going to be more and more pressure in Jamestown as a result of these small craft,” said Gomez, who has worked for more than 50 years as an engineer in undersea warfare. “They are out there now. People are using them, they go out and party on them and they run the river. The impact is more from the much larger number of people going out that needs parking, as opposed to parking a couple of expanding piers inside a marina perimeter.”
Ron Gagnon, who votes on behalf the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, concurred with Hudner and Gomez, saying the expansion of the boatyard will not impact congestion in the cove.
CRMC board chair Jennifer Cervenka was more sympathetic to the complaints from the public and suggested a compromise.
“I don’t think the boatyard is the only one that has the rights here,” Cervenka said. “They have their marina and their rights that are attendant with that. The public also has the right to use public-trust resources, so I don’t think it’s either or and we really do have to balance even within the marina perimeter limit. Like we discussed, it will have an impact immediately outside of that as well.”
Cervenka put forth the concept of approving the dredging but rejecting the dock expansion, a decision, she said, that will benefit the marina without making maters worse outside of the marina’s boundary.
CRMC board member Patricia Reynolds also recognized the reality of a crowded waterfront area and the plight of recreational users. The issue, she said, isn’t about the perimeter of the marina but about the addition of larger boats that make the cove more dangerous.
“This expansion does substantially interfere with other recreational uses that are existing in that area,” said Reynolds, who is the director of planning and economic development for the city of Newport.
Hudner countered, arguing that opposing the expansion and dredging proposal was infringing of the marina’s rights.
“That’s the balancing act that we are taking about,” he said. “It’s already been taken care of here. Now people are wanting to basically invade the marina perimeter.”
The board approved the marina’s expansion request, 4-2. Cervenka and Reynolds opposed.
Stephen DeVoe, general manager of the Jamestown Boat Yard, said after the decision that he was satisfied the rules were adhered to.
“It’s encouraging in this day and age people actually abide by what’s written down,” he said.
DeVoe noted that the expansion was scaled back twice to avoid administrative delays and objections.
One delay occurred when DeVoe sold the boat yard in the midst of the application process. The buyer, Safe Harbors Marinas, announced last month that the facility it will be bought for $2.11 billion by Sun Communities Inc., an owner of mobile-home parks based in Southfield, Mich.
DeVoe said the dredging and extension of three docs — two by 18 feet and one by 20 feet — will simply make it more convenient to move boats back and forth between the moorings and the docks.
Dredging is only allowed October through January. Unless there is a an appeal, the work will begin as soon as possible, he said.
The close vote by the CRMC board underscores a drawback of an unpaid citizen zoning board whose members, appointed by the governor, adjudicate consequential coastal development. Only six of the 10 members were present at the Oct. 27 meeting. Three of the four missing members are chronically absent. Their absence gives greater influence to members who attend regularly such as Gomez, Hudner, Raymond Coia, and Jerry Sahagian. On most matters the board votes unanimously, but in this case, the presence of two of the four missing members might have changed the outcome.
“We are truly disappointed that a minority of members of CRMC chose to place a higher value on a narrow, contested staff report to approve dredging of thousands of cubic yards of sediment and expanding the dock by hundreds of square feet in Dumplings Cove, ahead of the rights of many thousands of Rhode Island citizens who use the cove for recreational and contemplative purposes,” said Stuart Ross, president of Friends of Dumplings Cove. “The council’s decision potentially puts those Rhode Islanders at greater risk in an already-overcrowded and dangerous waterway.”
Ross said the intent of the expansion is to attract larger, transient boats to the marina, thereby increasing congestion in the cove. He said CRMC ignored the fact the these deeper-draft boats could instead be serviced by larger marinas in Newport and Portsmouth.
“What used to be a family-owned boatyard that has coexisted peacefully with its neighbors in Dumplings Cove for generations is now simply a real-estate asset owned by a distant corporation,” Ross said.
Regarding an appeal, Ross said, “Now that we’re in ‘dredging season,’ we will look at all immediate options to prevent it from taking place, because once you dredge, you can’t un-dredge the sea bottom.”