PROVIDENCE — After years of often heated debate, the state’s coastal regulator on Tuesday approved a scaled-back version of an aquaculture farm proposed by the owner of the famed Matunuck Oyster Bar.
The Coastal Resources Management Council’s vote in a Providence conference room allows Perry Raso to move forward on the shellfish farm, but with some changes: a 39-percent reduction in size from the original, with a 50-foot buffer from the shoreline, and a new restriction on the type of gear used at the site — submerged, instead of floating gear. With that last change, the farm would be able to grow scallops, but not oysters, according to staff at CRMC. CRMC is an independent state agency that approves or rejects leases to use the state’s waters for aquaculture.
The battle over Raso’s proposal has been going on for years. Raso already has an aquaculture farm in Potter Pond, which supplies his popular South Kingstown oyster bar. But in 2017, he had also proposed another farm in Potter Pond’s Segar Cove, in part to get more into growing scallops.
Area homeowners, kayakers, and anglers banded together to fight the proposal, raising objections on everything from the way it would look to the way it would affect fishing to the potential waterskiing navigation hazards.
Raso himself says the area of Segar Cove was rarely if ever used for purposes that would conflict with his farm, and went out every day to take pictures to prove it. (He lives nearby.)
In the years since he first applied, the application has gone through a tortured regulatory process, including a staff report that recommended approval, and a council subcommittee vote that recommended rejection. CRMC is made up of professional staff and a politically appointed council. That council doesn’t always follow the staff’s recommendations, and in this case they were all over the map.
In January, more than a year after the council subcommittee recommended rejection, the full council then directed the staff to weigh in on a potential solution: a smaller farm, and further from the shore. Those changes were aimed at addressing concerns about the safety of other water-dependent uses.
And on Tuesday night, the staff’s report went before the CRMC’s full council, whose members debated more about the process than the end result. Council member Catherine Robinson Hall raised concerns that the changes made the project significantly different from what people had spent years debating, and that the project needed to go back out for more public input.
“What’s going to come out the other end isn’t going to be what they thought was going in,” said Hall.
But enough members of the council disagreed to allow the project to move forward as modified.
“I think the changes reflect all of what we went through,” council member Don Gomez said.
The eventual vote was 4 to 2.
“I’m just mystified and upset,” project opponent David Latham said in a brief telephone interview afterward, adding in a text message after that he was also disappointed.
After the vote, lawyer Christian Capizzo, who represents opponents of the project, stated for the record that he objected to the proceedings.
What that means, in short, is that the battle over Segar Cove took another turn Tuesday, but quite possibly isn’t over yet.
Raso himself, meanwhile, has mostly just kept on shucking. In April he unveiled a project to build an oyster hatchery across from his restaurant, with the help of US Senator Jack Reed, with whom he’s worked in the aquaculture industry for years. An oyster hatchery makes the seeds that eventually get planted at an oyster farm.
He said in an interview Thursday that he was happy the process was over, and would have felt the same way however the vote turned out. The years-long process has been difficult, and although he’s been able to maintain friendships with people locally, some relationships have been strained. He grew up in South Kingstown, went to the University of Rhode Island and now lives nearby.
“It’s important that people weigh in on these things, and we get everybody’s information and feelings on a project like an aquaculture project in Rhode Island,” he said. “All Rhode Islanders own the water. Not just people that live on the water, but all Rhode Islanders.”
This story has been updated with a comment from Perry Raso.