Coastal Resources Board Accused of Backroom Deal to Approve Controversial Block Island Marina Expansion
February 9, 2021
Opponents of Champlin’s Marina & Resort development on Block Island, including the state attorney general, are contesting a recent agreement to expand the facility, a deal made with no public input and accusations that it circumvented a long-fought denial of the project.
Through a surprise mediated settlement with the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), Champlin’s Realty Associates Inc. was granted approval to build 170 feet into Great Salt Pond. The 1.5-acre expansion includes extending the fuel dock 85 feet to a length of 314 feet. A parallel 314-foot-long dock was approved that connects to the fuel dock with a 156-foot-long dock. Additional space for parking was also granted. Sewage pump-out stations and pedestal lighting were permitted on the new piers.
The agreement brokered by retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams was sanctioned unanimously Dec. 29 during an executive session of the CRMC board. CRMC declined to comment on the action and there is no public record of what occurred during closed-door deliberations.
Those exclusionary actions prompted Attorney General Peter Neronha to petition the state Supreme Court to intervene.
Neronha’s objective is “to protect Rhode Island’s unique coastal environment.” The intervention is warranted, he said, because the agreement wasn’t done publicly and key groups were excluded from the decision-making.
“We are concerned that proper procedures are not being followed and we have made that concern known to the court today,” Neronha wrote in a Feb. 8 press release.
Neronha cited four technical violations in the agreement between Champlin’s and CRMC, known as a memorandum of understanding (MOU): CRMC negotiated outside of jurisdiction; the agency didn’t follow its own regulations and procedures; the MOU doesn’t comply with state law that requires a decision to contain new information that supports the action; and the mediation settlement process didn’t follow the steps CRMC must take when considering a new plan.
“While I understand the CRMC’s and Champlin’s desire for finality,” Neronha said, “that cannot come at the expense of an established, transparent, regulatory process — one that has been approved by the courts.”
No permits have been issued for the construction, as the MOU is being contested in Supreme Court by the town of New Shoreham, the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, the Block Island Land Trust, the Block Island Conservancy, and the Conservation Law Foundation.
R. Daniel Prentiss, the attorney representing the town and three of the advocacy groups, said his clients declined to join the mediation because, they believed, without their participation a settlement wouldn’t go forward.
“We are all part of that and you can’t have full participation without all of the parties involved,” Prentiss said.
In a Jan. 14 letter to The Block Island Times, the town and the three conservation groups scolded CRMC for approving the project.
“Champlin’s Marina, and apparently the Rhode Island state Coastal Resources Management Council, are trying to make an end-run around the Superior Court’s affirmation of the denial of the marina expansion application,” according to the letter.
The group added that the town “was apparently misled having been told that the CRMC would only ‘mediate’ if the Town agreed to join the process, which it did not.”
“We believe that, in an attempt to avoid the difficult challenge of succeeding in an appeal of the Superior Court’s thoughtful decision, Champlin’s has, with the apparent approval of the CRMC and out of the public view, now asked the Supreme Court to approve a vast expansion of the marina, denying the public an opportunity for comment or protest,” according to the letter.
Champlin’s Realty Associates contends in the court filing that by refusing to join mediation the town and other intervenors waived their right to participate in the settlement process.
Complicating the controversy was the sale of the marina on Dec. 29 by owner Joseph Grillo to Cranston-based Procaccianti Companies for $25 million.
In a Feb. 4 press announcement, James Procaccianti, CEO of Procaccianti Companies, said details about the expansion will be announced in the coming months.
“We are humbled to join the Block Island community and look forward to implementing our responsible property improvement strategies to advance Champlin’s for generations to come,” he wrote.
The marina controversy began in 2003, when Champlin’s applied for a nearly 4-acre expansion. Facing considerable public opposition, CRMC rejected the application in 2006 and 2011. Champlin’s appealed to Superior Court in 2013. It wasn’t until February 2020 that the court affirmed CRMC’s decision. Champlin’s appealed to the state Supreme Court last summer.
Environmental groups vow to fight the latest action.
“Great Salt Pond is the most ecologically-sound coastal pond in Rhode Island and one of the most pristine in southern New England. Permitting this expansion will irreparably degrade the quality of the pond,” the Block Island Conservancy wrote in a statement. “The expansion is, at its core, an example of a private company encroaching on public open space.”
Pressure has been constant to develop the 770-acre Great Salt Pond to accommodate the popularity of the summer destination. In 1986, a proposed ferry terminal was defeated by local opposition.
Prentiss has until Feb. 17 to file a memorandum in opposition to the settlement, but the deadline may be extended if either party asks for more time. Prentiss expects that court proceedings will commence in March or later.
The court must decide the standing the town and the intervenors have in the mediation process.
Prentiss noted that as the lead attorney for nearly 20 years, he never received a direct invitation to participate in the settlement process. Instead, an email was sent to town solicitor Katherine Merolla, by CRMC attorney Anthony DeSisto. Judge Williams also sent an email invitation to Merolla to join the mediation.
Citing DeSisto’s email that stated that CRMC would only join the mediation if the town did, the New Shoreham Town Council elected not to participate. In an article by The Hummel Report, DeSisto noted that the email stating CRMC’s stance on having the town join the mediation was “a mistake.”
“That’s not a mistake that’s a different message,” Prentiss told ecoRI News. “The only communication that was made was the email to Kathy Merolla, who’s not even a lawyer for the parties. And that was the end of the communications. The notion that they tried to get all parties to participate was a flat out lie.”
The action comes as three members of the CRMC board are up for reappointment by the Senate. During a Feb. 3 Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture hearing, the eight-member committee near-unanimously approved the reappoint of the three Gov. Gina Raimondo nominees: Raymond Coia, Donald Gomez, and Jennifer Cervenka.
During the online hearing, members of the public criticized the three CRMC board members for favoring businesses over preserving public resources, for approving a recent boatyard expansion in Jamestown, and for engaging in private negotiations with Champlin’s.
Coia responded to the Champlin’s complaint by saying the assertions of a backroom deal “are 100 percent inaccurate, wrong, just misstatements.” He explained that he was present for a scheduled CRMC meeting with DeSisto, CRMC executive director Jeffrey Willis, Judge Williams, the property owners, and attorneys for Champlin’s.
“We did invite a representative from New Shoreham and Block Island. They declined to participate,” Coia said. “Nothing was out of the ordinary there. Nothing was backroom. It was as it’s supposed to be done.”
The three candidates were scheduled to go before the full Senate on Feb. 10 for final approval. Senate leaders, however, canceled the confirmation vote that morning.