Block Island Group Fights Great Development Pressure
April 2, 2021
In the late 1980s a group of New Shoreham residents, concerned about the degradation of one of Block Island’s most significant natural features, created the Committee for the Great Salt Pond. The group, which, four years in, called nearly half of the island’s year-round residents members, coalesced around the passion of co-founders Claire Costello and the late John O. Brotherhood Jr. and against a 1986 proposal to build a large ferry terminal inside the pond.
“The amount of dredging that would have been required and where they wanted to put it was absurd,” said Costello of the plan to build a terminal for ferries coming from New London, Conn. “It would have really disrupted the pond.”
Costello said her and Brotherhood’s concerns largely revolved around additional parking, increased stormwater runoff, and more discharges into a waterbody already reeling from neglect.
There was no court battle, and the terminal idea was rebuffed fairly quickly.
Three-plus decades later, the Committee for the Great Salt Pond is fighting another project it believes will upset the pond’s fragile balance. The group has been pushing back against this development plan for the past 18 years, and the struggle has cost a significant amount of time and money.
In 2003, Champlin’s Marina & Resort applied for a nearly 4-acre expansion. The project immediately faced considerable public opposition, and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) rejected the application in 2006 and 2011. Champlin’s appealed to Rhode Island 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.
Late last year, however, an unexpected mediated settlement was brokered by retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams between CRMC and Champlin’s Realty Associates Inc. It granted approval for the marina to expand its Great Salt Pond footprint by one and a half acres.
The agreement, sanctioned unanimously on Dec. 29 during an executive session of the CRMC board, approved an 85-foot extension of the marina’s fuel dock to a length of 314 feet and the construction of a parallel 314-foot-long dock that would connect to the fuel dock with a 156-foot-long dock. The expansion would create an additional 140 boat slips. Additional space for parking was also granted.
Late last month the state Supreme Court, in an unsigned order, rejected the proposed settlement. Champlin’s 2020 appeal will likely be heard by the full court later this year.
The done-in-secret deal, which came less than a week after Joseph Grillo sold the marina to Cranston-based Procaccianti Companies, circumvented a long-fought denial of the controversial project by the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, the Block Island Land Trust, the Block Island Conservancy, the town of New Shoreham, and other concerned parties.
Great Salt Pond, also known as New Harbor, is a 673-acre tidal pond that opens to Block Island Sound. Maintaining the heath of Block Island’s only estuary means balancing environmental protections with commercial, recreational, and residential uses, according to Sven Risom, a New Shoreham Town Council member.
“It’s a delicate balance,” said Risom, who is also treasurer for the Committee for the Great Salt Pond. “Eighteen years later, nobody would have predicted this would still be going on.”
He said the robust pushback to the proposed marina expansions is for good reason. He noted that all the environmental checks haven’t been completed, that the expansion would cut into the town’s mooring field, and that the expanded dock would reach into the fairway, the part of a harbor that boats frequent. He stressed that the Committee for the Great Salt Pond isn’t anti-growth or anti-commerce.
“The original proposal was massive, and the new one was made on the fly and is still severe,” Risom said. “Everyone treats the pond as a sensitive, special place. We need to respect it. It needs balance.”
For project opponents, the increased development proposed by Champlin’s Marina goes against efforts to balance the environmental protection of the Great Salt Pond and its watershed with its use by residents, visitors, and local businesses.
Costello said the rehabilitation of the pond proved economic development and environmental protections can work together.
“The pond is a prized environmental resource and a leading economic resource,” she said. “We cleaned it up and enhanced its economic value.”
Editor’s note: First of a two-part series about the pressures, past and present, that the Great Salt Pond has faced and the efforts made to mitigate the stress on this significant waterbody. To read the second story, click here.