Over on Potter Pond, it feels like deja vu all over again
An application to lease three acres of Segar Cove in South Kingstown’s Potter Pond has been delayed, again. CRMC’s Potter Pond shell game was another unfortunate twist in the battle to save a public trust waterway from private development. Much to the dismay of those believing more than five years would be sufficient to decide whether to allow a private business to usurp historical recreational uses of that pond, the Coastal Resources Management Council sent the application back for more study after Councilmember Jerry Sahagian made a surprising and confusing motion to change the footprint and acreage of the application. This came after applicant Perry Raso’s last minute change of plans was denied by Councilmember Gomez’s motion, because “It was so well discussed after so many hours…This is just too late.”
Apparently based on a fear of a denial being overturned by a court, Councilmember Sahagian offered to reduce the proposed business site by 39%. This is illogical because good stewards of public trust should have faith in their actions if they are rooted in well-researched, thoughtful, ethical decisions. He suggested changing the proposed shape, gear type and distance from what he called, “landward,” except that the proposed site is in a cove so there’s land on all four sides. It gets more confusing. If moved east towards the peninsula, it would be harder to navigate around it. “There was a lot of public use there, and it was a dangerous spot,” Mr. Gomez said in reference to the cove. If moved west into deeper water, then there would be even less open space for recreational boating which is what opponents have been saying since the beginning of this taxpayer funded boondoggle. Still more confusing is why Councilmember Sahagian would propose such a change and why the applicant didn’t say anything.
Let’s say someone needs a thousand square feet of retail space with street-front windows to sell their widgets. If a landlord offered 600 square feet, in a different section of the building, that someone would need to determine if that could be profitable. But what if a landlord just made the change without asking him or her then signed the lease? That would be absurd, of course, unless the two had arranged to have a conversation first.
CRMC’s Potter Pond Shell Game Delay Tactic
Regardless of how shellfish gear is deployed or configured, it would still be a private business with boats and people to power it operating in a public waterway which ultimately denies historic, existing, recreational and commercial users access. Apparently Councilmember Sahagian, who said he’s taken some kids tubing there, thought little of CRMC’s own Perry Raso Subcommittee’s recommendation to deny, or that if approved, that there will be far less room for tubing in Segar Cove. From a piece we wrote several years ago: “This application would subtract approximately ten acres from those 30.3 acres because South Kingstown has a Boats and Waterways regulation for waterskiing and towed watersports which mandates a 200 hundred foot buffer from stationary objects. When you factor in the corner markers and do the math, it equals the question, why should we have to give up our public space for a private company’s profits?”
This is precisely how NIMBY evolved.
“WHEREFORE, as a result of these findings of fact, and conclusions of law, it appears that the proposed activity has a reasonable probability of causing a detrimental impact upon the coastal resources of the State of Rhode Island. As a result of these findings of fact and conclusions of law, the Subcommittee hereby recommends that the Council deny the application.”
If his motion passed as presented, what then prohibits the applicant from expanding, again? That might be great photo ops for politicians riding in Mr. Raso’s boats but it would be, once again, at community expense, the same community which was excluded from being informed of this significant change to public trust waters. Ironically, it was not the State or the applicant or CRMC who informed/alerted the public, abutters, neighbors, pond users or even the Town of South Kingstown about this application, it was this column.
Councilmember Sahagian referred to a former CRMC employee as the “aquaculture guru of the Northeast,” which was an obsequious title bestowed without explanation. He also referred erroneously to any South Kingstown Harbormaster approval by stating, “The fact that the Town harbormaster indicated there wouldn’t be any navigation issue…” The harbormaster actually said, “The 3 acres of usable water obviously constricts the area however, there are no safety concerns or issues related to the boats and waterways ordinances.” The Intervenor’s Post-Hearing Memorandum of Law and Statement of Facts notes, “The South Kingstown Harbor Master was presented as a witness by the applicant and there was no evidence presented by the applicant as to what the Harbor Master based this statement on compared to the expert testimony and analysis on navigational impact and safety presented by the Intervenor’s expert, Mr. Whitney and how the South Kingstown boats and waterway ordinance impacts the use of the cove when applied to the proposed three acre facility.”
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should
The South Kingstown Waterfront Advisory Commission voted to deny the Raso application. As we wrote several years ago after attending that meeting, “Recognizing the Town has no legal jurisdiction over proposed leases or any statutory obligation to inform terrestrial abutters and that the commission was just advisory, from the table came the comment, “CRMC can ignore it, as they usually do…,” and that, I believe, is the real rub. Shellfish aquaculture can be environmentally positive but occasionally it’s not what it offers but what it takes away that hurts the pond and it’s users most significantly.” Truth.
Councilmember Catherine Robinson Hall asked what shape the proposed site might be and what effect a change in gear type would have on the substrate, reminding other members the application is in a living, dynamic marine environment with a plethora of users. She tried persistently to convince members that such a serious alteration demanded public notice and review from qualified staffers. The Chairman and counsel seemed prepared for such a request, handily producing statutes allowing for a decision to be made right then but Councilmember Robinson Hall held her ground, thankfully, understanding perhaps that just because you can doesn’t always mean you should.
In a Save the Bay piece from September 10, 2021 regarding the Champlin’s Marina application, they wrote, “We are concerned that the decision not only ignores the principles of a fair process set forth by law, but also opens the door to a new process—one in which state agencies and applicants can completely cut the public out of a review process for a decision that impacts our public resources.” Truth again.
This isn’t cutting a few feet off a dock application, this is a Potter Pond shell game. This is a legacy decision. At a time when CRMC is being excoriated for lack of transparency and questionable decisions, Mr. Sahagian’s motion wholly ignores the concerns of everyone opposed to another commercial business operating in a small salt pond, regardless of it being “landward.”
Finally, in the initial application, Mr. Raso stated, ““I have never seen anyone fishing or shellfishing either commercially or recreationally in the proposed area.” His claim is shamefully misleading. I’ve never seen him working in his lease, which does not mean he doesn’t go there a lot. I go fishing where I’m seldom ever seen, because I don’t want to be, at all hours of the night and very early mornings. That doesn’t mean I (or lots of other folks) don’t go fishing in Segar Cove.
I suggest the applicant use some of his existing acreage to grow scallops and leave the rest of Potter Pond to the people who profit only from their enjoyment.