Questions of process, authority surround harbor management

A new harbor management committee is one step closer to being formed, but how much further the effort will end up going remains an open question.

At its June 27 meeting, Assistant Town Attorney Aamina Ahmad formally presented the Board of Selectmen with a draft of a new ordinance that would form a committee to develop a harbor management plan for Greenwich. No vote was taken, though, to allow for time for public comment. A public hearing is likely to be held in the near future solely on this issue but no date or location has been set yet.

“This is the product of many, many weeks, perhaps a few months of work, from several people here in town,” Ms. Ahmad said.

The selectmen are hoping to be able to have this ordinance before the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for its consideration at the body’s September meeting, giving them until August to finalize the submission.

“The public hearing on what has been drafted is really the next step,” First Selectman Peter Tesei said. “We need to get broader input on this.”

Several members of the town’s boating community and of the current Harbor Management Advisory Committee were on hand for the meeting and Mr. Tesei thanked them for what they had done to contribute towards creating the ordinance. Looking ahead to the RTM approval, Ms. Ahmad said that members of the body contributed to the draft as well.

“Many people have looked at this and made comments and suggestions but I would still call it a work in progress,” Ms. Ahmad said. “This will really get the discussion started and when you do have that public hearing I think you will get a lot more input from other interested parties so we can refine this further as we go along.”

In the current draft form, the ordinance allows for a commission to be formed that would be responsible for “preparing, maintaining and implementing a harbor management plan” for the town. The commission would be made up of seven volunteer residents and two alternates who would be nominated by the selectmen and approved by the RTM, following the process used by other town boards and commissions. The town’s harbormaster, which is a state position, and members of several town boards, including the selectmen, the Planning and Zoning Commission and Conservation Commission, would serve as ex-officio members.

The commission would have jurisdiction “within and over all ‘navigable waters’ and inter-tidal areas below the mean water line on the shoreline of Greenwich” and within the territorial limits of the town. Its tasks, in addition to implementing and managing the harbor management plan, which is yet to be written, would include proposing fees for moorings for boats docked in town. It would also manage mooring and anchorage areas. Any fees, which would need approval from the selectmen and RTM, collected would only be able to be used for maintenance and improvement of areas within the commission’s jurisdiction.

Under the current proposal, any decisions made by the commission would have the chance to be appealed to the Board of Selectmen within 30 days of the decision.

According to Ms. Ahmad, the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) would have the right to review whatever plan a commission would come up with. The Army Corps of Engineers also has the ability to provide comments on the plan. Ms. Ahmad explained that once a plan is written, it would first come to the selectmen for review and, if approved, is then sent to the state agencies for their approval. If the state signs off on it, the plan would then go for final approval before the RTM.

At the June 27 meeting, the selectmen did not offer any specifics about how they would vote on the proposed ordinance, but did indicate support for it by wondering how the RTM would vote on it. Selectman Drew Marzullo brought up the idea of the RTM either failing to act or voting down the ordinance and said the selectmen had to be prepared for that and come up with a backup plan.

“We’d be back in an area where this will continue to be debated,” Mr. Marzullo said. “We should have a plan two just in case.”

The concern was also stated by Mr. Tesei, who cited the recent discussion over town leases where an item referred by the selectmen was held up by the RTM so it could create a policy first. Mr. Marzullo asked if the selectmen could then come up with, if not an ordinance of its own, then a guideline to deal with specific issues and have rules in place to answer questions of ambiguity. Ms. Ahmad told the board that it has the authority to do that and that it could work as a “plan B.” Mr. Tesei said he wanted to affirm with RTM Moderator Tom Byrne “an understanding” of what the process was going forward and get a sense of how the body might proceed.

“We’re going to want to know what the rules of engagement are going into the process,” Mr. Tesei said.

Under a 1949 special act from the state, Greenwich enjoys far more jurisdiction over its own waters than other municipalities in the state do. Selectman David Theis said he wanted to make sure that any ordinance passed did not cede any of that power away from the town. Under that special act, the Board of Selectmen is essentially the waterfront management authority, which has led to confusion in the past between what the responsibilities of the town are and what are the state’s with Mr. McMillan serving as harbormaster.

“My question is by going forward with this are we going to end up with a consolidation and improved clarity of authority, or are we going to essentially codify the existing structure in a more formalized way?” Mr. Tesei asked.

Ms. Ahmad said the intention is that the plan put together by the commission would have “very specific” rules and regulations about where moorings can be placed and what can be done in channels and harbors. Under state statute, Ms. Ahmad said that once that plan with all the details is finalized, all state agencies and the harbormaster must follow what’s in it. She assured Mr. Theis that the ordinance was written to “incorporate the special acts to the greatest extent possible” allowing the town to retain the authority granted to it originally.

“This will take away some of that debate, if you want to call it that, as to whose right and whose opinion do you take,” Ms. Ahmad said. “The plan will lay out all the details as to how certain types of situations are handled and how the harbors are managed.”

Town Conservation Director Denise Savageau repeated her department’s endorsement of creating a harbor management plan at the meeting and contended that creating the plan would give the town more jurisdiction. She said the state’s role in developing the plan would only be to make sure it is legal and consistent with existing statutes.

“Once they approve the plan they have to follow what we put in place,” Ms. Savageau said.

Until a harbor management plan is finalized the selectmen would remain the waterfront authority in town. However, Ms. Ahmad answered Mr. Theis’s inquiry about who the harbormaster ultimately reports to as “the million-dollar question” since the position is a state one reporting to the DOT but is assigned to Greenwich and the selectmen have the jurisdiction over the town’s waters. She said that means the harbormaster would continue to report to the Board of Selectmen but there is a “dual authority.”

“This seems to be at the heart of the issue,” Mr. Theis said, talking about the need for an approved plan.

Mr. Tesei said continued discussions about who has authority where on town waters are “frustrating” and called for more “collaboration and common sense.”

“This has consumed an inordinate amount of time and has been the issue du jour about tabloid stories about conflict rather than what is the substance,” Mr. Tesei said. “The substance really is equity in the placement of moorings and the right of individuals to have access to public waterways but regulated in a manner that does not impede on others. There has to be some give and take.”

 

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