Town tries to ease choppy waters with harbor management plan

Town government and boaters are convinced something has to be done to create a cohesive harbor management process. It’s just how to go about doing it that’s still an open question.

That’s what’s before the Board of Selectmen right now after a presentation last week by the Selectmen’s Harbor Management Advisory Committee. There has been an increased focus on harbor management in recent years and now a more formalized plan and the structure with which to execute it is being called for by First Selectman Peter Tesei. The committee responded to that call in its discussion with the board, and three options have emerged.

One option is to formally designate the Board of Selectmen as the Harbor Management Committee, another is to have the selectmen in that role with an advisory group assisting it, which is very similar to what is in place now, and the third would be to establish a completely new entity. Mr. Tesei speculated that any new entity could have representation from the selectmen, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Conservation Commission and the Board of Parks and Recreation with town officials serving as ex-officio members. He added, though, that this was something that could change throughout the discussion.

In an interview with the Post this week, Mr. Tesei said that before any decisions are made he would want to hold a public hearing on the potential options and to get reactions and input from residents. He added that he wanted to make it clear that a plan would be put in place “to create efficiencies and not add new regulations,” something that could be a concern to local boaters.

“It’s about taking a fractured process and refining it so people can go to one body to address their concerns instead of having to go through a piecemeal approach,” Mr. Tesei said to the Post.

This could well end up being a long-term discussion. Mr. Tesei said that after having the public hearing and going through the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), which would have the ultimate vote on any ordinance that would establish the plan and a potential commission, things might not become final until early 2013. A public hearing is not likely to happen until September at the earliest due to travel schedules over the rest of the summer.

Mr. Tesei has said he also wants “active engagement” with town departments who are stakeholders in harbor management along with the input of the advisory committee.

Assistant Town Attorney Aamina Ahmad told the selectmen that the first step would be getting the ordinance in place to establish what the formal commission would be like and other features like how many members there would be and how long their terms would last. The commission could then begin the work of creating the harbor management plan. Under state statute the plan would also have to be approved by the RTM.

At the July 12 Board of Selectmen meeting, Harbor Management Advisory Committee Chairman John Sanna presented a “pro and con” document listing the possible options for harbor management scenarios along with what is good and bad about them.

“This is really only phase one,” Mr. Sanna said. “There are a lot of variables associated with it.”

Mr. Sanna said he personally favored “baby steps” on harbor management as opposed to one grand change in the process all at once. He said thanks to previous efforts by Joe Siciliano, the town’s director of parks and recreation, there is already an existing document to use as a basis, meaning “we don’t have to start from scratch on this.”

Mr. Sanna added that Stamford took three years to develop a harbor management plan and said Greenwich was already “way ahead” of their pace.

“Realistically I think it would take about a year from where we are now to develop a true harbor management plan,” Mr. Sanna said.

Right now the advisory committee has no official power in town. It reports to the Board of Selectmen, which can approve or ignore any recommendations made. Town resident Ian McMillan serves as Greenwich’s harbormaster but he reports to the governor’s office and ultimately operates independently of the selectmen.

A question that is yet to be answered is whether the town would need state approval for any harbor management plan. Mr. Sanna said that’s not clear yet but in Greenwich, under a special act from the state from 1949, the selectmen have broad powers when it comes to waterfront management. That has opened the door to many different interpretations of what can and can’t be done by the town, and Selectman David Theis said he would be concerned about plans that would involve giving up too much local control to the state.

Under the special act, the selectmen essentially already serve as the Harbor Management Commission and the end result of this discussion could be to formalize that.

Mr. Sanna said forming a separate committee in town wouldn’t be taking power away from the selectmen since he believed under the special act it’s not possible to do that. He said this could be a way to give “day-to-day operation” to this other body and that the committee would end up reporting to the selectmen.

Mr. Tesei told Mr. Sanna that the most important first step was forming the actual harbor management plan because so much of the process is scattered over different parts of town government that it needs to be brought together.

“Right now we have disparate pieces of information and governing instruments that would be all enveloped into one document,” Mr. Tesei said. “That document would then have to tie in to the other needs of the town. Planning and Zoning has areas of authority with coastal area management. There are areas where the Conservation Commission gets involved. Parks and Rec, as it relates to marine facilities and the activities surrounding them, would have a voice in it. Right now they’re operating in independent silos. I see the plan bringing them all together.”

Mr. Sanna said he agreed and that it would “be a big step for us in terms of managing our waterways in a much more effective and efficient manner.” He added it would also give the harbormaster a clear line of defense when he is being questioned by someone since they can say they are following the town’s management plan.

That could have been seen as a slightly ironic statement since Mr. McMillan has clashed with several members of the advisory commission due to differing management philosophies.

Mr. Tesei said it was vital for this plan to be in place so things could move forward and people wouldn’t be “second guessing” every decision because a formal plan had been followed.

“Whether they accept the decision or not, they would have accepted the plan,” Mr. Tesei said.

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