PROVIDENCE — In a decision hailed by Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and environmental groups, the Rhode Island Supreme Court said Friday that a long-proposed expansion of Champlin’s Marina on Block Island could not move forward.
In 2003, Champlin’s filed an application with the Coastal Resources Management Council to extend its existing marina 240 feet into the Great Salt Pond, to accommodate 140 additional boats. The proposed expansion included 2,990 feet of fixed pier and an additional 755 feet of floating docks.
The expansion was opposed by the Conservation Law Foundation, the Block Island Land Trust, the Block Island Conservancy, and the town of New Shoreham, all of which pushed back against the development. They claimed the expansion would significantly displace other uses in the Great Salt Pond, which includes the navigational channel and the Town’s town’s mooring field, eliminating at least 40 mooring rentals, and damage the pond’s environmental health.
The CRMC, the state agency that controls waterfront permitting, unanimously denied the marina’s proposed expansion in 2011 and in 2013. Champlin’s appealed to Rhode Island Superior Court, which ruled in 2020 that the CRMC’s denial was correct.
Champlin’s appealed to the state Supreme Court, however, in December 2020, the CRMC entered into a closed-session mediation with the marina and granted some dock expansion, in a memorandum of understanding.
The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision Friday.
The Supreme Court found that the CRMC had no authority to engage in private mediation and settle the case while on appeal.
“Because Champlin’s application was denied, the CRMC did not have the authority to modify the final decision,” the court said. “Certainly, administrative agencies retain broad enforcement discretion and, as always, considerable deference is accorded to such agencies about how to enforce regulations; however, here, no such applicable regulation exists. We additionally do not find any regulation permitting a post-final-decision settlement to be discussed in an executive session and then approved in an open session. Indeed, the CRMC’s regulations appear to favor the opposite.”
Citing CRMC’s regulations, the court said the law applicable to this agency requires “an open, traceable decision-making process [which] is essential for an effective coastal management program.”
“Today’s decision by our state’s Supreme Court is a win for all Rhode Islanders not only because of what it means for the protection of our environment and coastal resources, but also because it reaffirms the principle that we were fighting for: regulatory agencies have to follow the rules and cannot engage in ad-hoc, behind-closed-door, deals that ignore their own procedures and evidence for the sake of expediency,” Neronha said in a statement Friday.
The attorney general’s office had intervened in the legal dispute in early 2021 because of an attempt by Champlin’s Marina and the Coastal Resources Management Council to circumvent the public regulatory process through mediation. The town of New Shoreham had claimed the memorandum of understanding was done “behind their back.”
Robert Goldberg, the lawyer for Champlin’s Marina, said in a statement that they were disappointed with the ruling.
“The proposed expansion was designed to provide the public with additional access and enjoyment of Great Salt Pond while also making sure the environment was protected. We are concerned that the Supreme Court gave such short shrift to the more than six-year unexplained delay by the lower Court in its decision on the case,” Goldberg said in a statement. “Mediation was a long-recognized tool for alternative dispute resolution. It saves money, time and delay and it often helps to add civility and focus to difficult and stressful circumstances. Mediation seemed like a good idea at the time.”
But the environmental groups that had fought the expansion celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Today’s decision is a major victory for Block Island,” said Conservation Law Foundation attorney James Crowley. “The Great Salt Pond is one of the state’s pristine environmental gems, and this huge proposed expansion of the marina would permanently scar it. After almost two decades, this should be the end of the expansion effort.”
The decision was written by Chief Justice Paul A. Suttellc. Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, whose husband, Robert Goldberg, is Champlin’s lawyer, did not participate.