Selectmen give OK to new harbor commission

Greenwich’s waterfront will be the main focus of the new committee that will be formed if the Representative Town Meeting gives it the green light. — Ken Borsuk photo

Greenwich’s waterfront will be the main focus of the new committee that will be formed if the Representative Town Meeting gives it the green light.
— Ken Borsuk photo

A new harbor management commission for the town is one big step closer to being created, but now its future is in the hands of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).

At a special meeting on Aug. 15, the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved the creation of the new seven-member volunteer commission that would not only create a harbor management plan for the town, but have jurisdiction over implementing the plan. What will be in that actual plan is still very much up in the air, but the selectmen’s vote clears the way for the commission to actually be created with the RTM’s say so.

The details of ordinance that creates the commission will be on the agenda for the RTM’s September meeting. However it is likely that it will not be considered on the floor for a vote until October at least. Discussion of the ordinance can begin, though, at the body’s Sept. 16 meeting at Central Middle School, which will be the first one after the summer recess.

The ordinance was approved after a section by section review by the selectmen of the language with the assistance of Assistant Town Attorney Aamina Ahmad who drafted it after several meetings with an ad hoc committee made up of local boaters and members of the previous harbor management commission. A public hearing was also held on the ordinance last month, showing a divided opinion, with some saying it would add extra government bureaucracy and others saying it was badly needed for the town to get a harbor management policy set so issues pertaining to the town’s waters can be dealt with.

Under the proposal, the new commission would first develop the plan for the town and then be in charge of implementing and enforcing it. That currently is a responsibility for the Board of Selectmen and this would become, if approved, a volunteer board in town dedicated to waterfront issues.

“The Harbor Management Commission would be an ongoing entity that would take on the role of making sure the goals that are in the harbor management plan are implemented,” Ms. Ahmad said. “If other issues come up, it would become almost the central forum for town residents and the boating public.”

Authority an issue

One issue the ordinance attempted to clarify was who would have final authority under a plan. And while the commission would be in charge of developing and implementing the plan, an appeals process will be included that would give the Board of Selectmen the final say. Any decision of the commission’s could be appealed to the selectmen within 30 days, giving the board the opportunity to overrule a decision.

“The Board of Selectmen would be able to sit as the appellate authority, in essence,” Ms. Ahmad told the board at the Aug. 15 meeting. “You would be able to make a decision against what the harbor management commission had decided.”

This part of the ordinance also allows the town to make sure it has the ultimate authority and retains rights granted to it by the stare under special acts in 1949 and 1955 which allow Greenwich far more control over its waters than other Connecticut municipalities enjoy.

“The Board of Selectmen has the ultimate jurisdiction and authority over the town’s harbors,” Ms. Ahmad said. “We wanted to keep that authority intact so we put in a review and an appeal process by the Board of Selectmen into the ordinance.”

It’s unclear how long it will take the RTM to decide on this ordinance. Mr. Tesei noted it “would not be unusual” for the body to take several meetings to discuss it. If the RTM does approve it, the Board of Selectmen would use the normal town process for finding the members by nominating them and then sending those nominations to the RTM for review. The members will all have three-year terms eventually, but in order to launch the new commission, those terms would be staggered.

Initially commission members will have three of them serving for four years, two for three years and two of them for two years. Ms. Ahmad said this would avoid every member coming up for renewal at the same time. This kind of staggering is used on all other town boards and commissions for that same reason.

“You want to get people up to speed on what’s going on and this initial period is when the work of putting together a harbor management plan is being done,” Ms. Ahmad said. “You don’t want members starting on the commission and then all be off in three years leaving you having to start off with new folks.”

The commission would have the responsibility of electing officers from among its members. There will also be non-voting ex-officio members, including a representative from the Board of Selectmen. This group will also include Greenwich’s harbormaster, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, the RTM, the Conservation Board, the Greenwich Police Department’s Marine Division, the Shellfish Commission, the Department of Public Works and both the town’s Parks and Recreation board and department.

The RTM could end up rejecting the commission since there is a divide among town residents over whether it is even necessary. Anticipating that, Selectman Drew Marzullo asked several questions at the Aug. 15 meeting designed to try and deal with issues the RTM might have over the language in the ordinance. However his colleagues and Ms. Ahmad didn’t want to make the ordinance’s language too specific.

Plan will take time

If the commission is created there is no time frame set for how long it would take to develop the actual plan. Ms. Ahmad noted that it took Stamford three years to develop its harbor management plan, but that Greenwich has done far more preliminary work. Once a plan is written, it would have to be approved by the Board of Selectmen, sent to the state and the Army Corps of Engineers for review and then back to the town so the RTM can get it for the final vote.

Discussion at the Aug. 15 meeting focused on the commission’s ability to charge fees for moorings, anchorage or anything else that will be covered under the plan comparable to what the Department of Parks and Recreation currently does. Parks and Recreation Department Director Joe Siciliano offered some concern that this might create confusion over policies dealing with land owners with docks and private marinas and create multiple levels of fees. But the selectmen said they did not want to get too much into the specifics as it regarded this ordinance and that the question of fees would be better left to the commission itself as it develops an actual harbor management plan.

“To give a broad reaching direction or authority, even if it does have to come back to this board and the RTM, I think would need further analysis,” Mr. Tesei said. “I think the plan can delve more thoroughly into this rather than putting it into the ordinance.”

Town Harbormaster Ian Macmillan said he agreed.

“Let’s keep the financial side of things within the bounds of the commission and let it fall where they may,” Mr. Macmillan said. “Let’s not restrict their activities in any way.”

Additionally a debate around policies for docks and piers was another area the selectmen felt the commission should take up if approved. There was discussion about the concern a commission could end up taking authority away from the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, but Mr. Tesei said, “This ends up adding an additional opportunity for review and advice in looking at the waterways in a broader sense.” Town Planner Diane Fox appeared at the meeting to confirm that this was not going to be an problem for the commission.

While saying they believed a formalized harbor plan would call for better coordination across town government, Mr. Tesei and Ms. Ahmad agreed that doing this would give the town “greater control” by insuring that docks and piers in Greenwich waters are in accordance with a harbor management plan approved by the town and the state.

“That’s the underlying issue that people are going to have in evaluating this,” Mr. Tesei said. “Is it loss of control or is it greater control. There’s a strong desire and emphasis in Greenwich to maintain as much local autonomy as we can.”

One area that was dealt with at the meeting was the part of the ordinance requiring attendance from the members. Under the current language, a member can be removed if they miss half of the scheduled meetings. Mr. Marzullo wondered if this threshold was too low and also what would happen if a member became seriously ill and had to miss meetings despite wanting to attend. Ms. Ahmad said that the removal of a member would have to come before the selectmen so individual circumstances could be considered.

Ultimately there was no second for Mr. Marzullo’s motion to increase the threshold for removal to missing one third of the meetings, which had been the ordinance’s initial setting before it was changed after last month’s public hearing.

Ms. Ahmad received high praise from the selectmen for her work on the ordinance. Mr. Tesei personally thanked her for all she had done on the subject noting it was “an area of law not routinely before the town attorney’s office” and joking she had developed a “cottage industry” as the town’s maritime lawyer.

“We all are very pleased with your assistance and help on this,” Mr. Tesei said.

 

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