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Save the Bay’s longtime leader, Stone to step down after 14 years

In a Q&A, Jonathan Stone looks forward to the opening of an aquarium in Newport and calls for reforming the Coastal Resources Management Council

Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay, plans to step down in June 2023, completing 14 years leading the environmental organization.Handout

PROVIDENCE — Jonathan Stone will retire in June 2023, completing 14 years as executive director of Save the Bay, the environmental group announced Wednesday.

Stone is the fourth executive director to lead the 52-year-old environmental organization, and the Save the Bay board will be assembling a search committee in the coming months.

Stone, 64, of Providence, took part in this Q&A with Globe Rhode Island:

Why are you retiring now?

We are in a really good place as an organization, having come through the pandemic in good form and keeping the staff healthy and intact. And we have improved our finances over the last four or five years. Earlier this year, we completed a new strategic plan, and then a year ago we signed a lease with Newport for the Gateway transportation center to build our new aquarium.


Wasn’t your father the principal founder of the New England Aquarium?

Yes. That was one of his proudest achievements. I was at the groundbreaking in 1968. When the doors opened, he retired. There is a certain symmetry to it in that the New England Aquarium opened the small aquarium that we run in Easton’s Beach in 2003. They decided it didn’t make financial sense, so we took it over in 2006. It’s small — 1,200 square feet. But the new aquarium in Newport will be 7,000 square feet. It’s a great location, with parking, close to the harbor — the ideal size and footprint. So we jumped on it. We expect it to open next summer. And that’s one of the reasons I felt it was a good time to pass the reins to somebody.

What were some of Save the Bay’s biggest achievements in your 14 years?

We’ve had lots of advocacy successes in defense of the bay, such as stopping the Hess liquefied natural gas terminal that was to be built in the middle of Mount Hope Bay. We led the opposition to that project. I feel another major achievement was our leadership on the cesspool phaseout legislation passed in 2015. We were the lead advocate for the new wetlands protection act that extended protections for wetlands around Rhode Island for the benefit of water quality and habitats for animals. And most recently, we had an important victory with the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience (OSCAR) Fund.


At first, that fund wasn’t funded, was it? Did the state provide money?

Yes. This year the legislature put $4 million in direct appropriations in the fund. That money will be used around the state on public lands and land held for public benefit to protect natural resources, coastal habitats, and the functions of various natural systems in the face of climate change. The barrier dunes in South County, the salt marshes all have storm resilience benefits. They break down the wave action and storm surge. It’s important from a public safety, recreation, and fisheries point of view.

What has been your biggest frustration in your 14 years?

We are resource constrained as an organization. We worked hard to augment and extend our resources to enhance our impact. That has been a major goal of mine — to strengthen the organization financially so we can play a bigger role in climate adaptation challenges and other environmental challenges. One of the successes is a new initiative adding staff capacity to provide support to cities and towns to do more water quality and habitat restoration projects.


What is one bill you’d like to see the General Assembly pass in the next legislative session?

We are very focused on reforming the Coastal Resources Management Council. That includes reforming the role of the council itself — the politically appointed body that makes final decisions on permitting and enforcement cases. We would like the council to remain but be limited to an advisory role rather than a final decision-making role. There has been tension, and on occasion council decisions run counter to professional staff opinions. Another related issue is the council is not accountable in the way that the director of a state agency would be.

Attention has focused on the environmental impact the Port of Providence has on surrounding neighborhoods. What more needs to be done?

It has been a major topic. A starting point is the companies that operate in the Port of Providence need to conform to existing state regulations on air and water quality. There have been various problems along the way. So a starting point in terms of environmental justice is to make sure operations follow the rules. And then we would like to see improvement in the port being more friendly to the South Providence community. That means adding public access to the waterfront. We worked closely with groups on the South Side to secure a public access right of way on Public Street. We would like to see more done on air quality, such as from idling trucks, and a variety of environmental stressors need to be addressed.


What is the status of water quality in Narragansett Bay?

Water quality continues to improve. The latest evidence of that is the Department of Environmental Management opening up shellfishing grounds north of Conimicut Point to harvest quahogs. That is a function of dramatic improvements in water quality in the Providence River, and we expect those improvements to continue when the Narragansett Bay Commission completes Phase 3 of the (combined sewer overflow) project now under construction in Pawtucket.

During a 2010 kayak trip, you called for progress on two sites on the bay — the former Shooters nightclub site in Providence and the former Rocky Point amusement park site in Warwick. What has happened since then?

Rocky Point is now one of the crown jewels of the Rhode Island state park system. That is an incredible success story due to hard work of (former Warwick) mayor Scott Avedisian, the Rocky Point Foundation, and Senator Jack Reed and the federal delegation. We played a role in advocating for state funds to acquire the last remaining land. DEM has built a new fishing pier there. With the Shooters facility, the best way to put it is: It’s a work in progress. The state is running the fast ferry down to Newport out of that site. But it has not been transformed into a gateway to the bay, which was one of proposals for the site. That has not materialized yet, but with all the development nearby on the Route 195 corridor, we will see what happens.


What’s next for you?

I don’t have any specific plans. But I’m a pretty active guy, so I don’t intend to be sitting on the couch much. I will do a lot more kayaking and enjoying life on the bay.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.