2015-04-09 / Front Page

Mooring Objections Aired

By Barry Bridges

The Rhode Island House Committee on Municipal Government entertained public comments on the “Mooring Bill,” H 5847, at a Statehouse hearing on Thursday, April 2.

The measure, which would add a state mooring fee on top of existing local fees and establish a new marine safety patrol with “full police powers,” has drawn criticism from many in the boating community.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Scott A. Slater, D-Providence, took the podium briefly and told his lawmaker colleagues that the “main goal is to give a priority in moorings to Rhode Islanders.” He further said that the “unjust” negative attention has been “disheartening.”

But Slater was the only person during the meeting who endorsed the bill; he was outnumbered by 14 witnesses who testified at length in opposition to the pro- posal. Among those voicing their objections were Matt Gineo of the Newport Maritime Alliance; Waterfront Commission member Kim Hapgood; former School Chair and boating enthusiast Dr. Charles Shoemaker; and Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport.

As the testimony unfolded, a theme that emerged was that many boaters purchase moorings because they can’t afford a slip or private dock. “These people are not yacht owners, but are mostly blue collar boat owners who cannot afford additional fees,” said Fred Bieberbach, a marine industry veteran. Similarly, Narragansett Harbormaster Kevin O’Connor said, “Moorings are for people who don’t have money to use a dock. They are not luxurious.”

“Please don’t make it more difficult to own and operate a pleasure boat,” added Gineo. “Contrary to the opinion of many, not all boat owners are wealthy. This will force more departures from boating.”

Andrew Tyska of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association testified, “I see this as an attack bill – it’s attacking the middle class boater and the middle class worker. This legislation would put jobs at risk and will put middle class access to water at risk.” He argued that the additional fee would encourage boaters to give up the pastime and enjoy Narragansett Bay in other ways. “If you take the time to look between the large shiny boats, you’ll find your neighbors and families on their boats enjoying the water. That’s what this would prevent.”

Several witnesses focused instead on the proposed safety patrol, saying that such a force would create redundancies and would not be adequately financed.

“Of the many problems we see in this bill, the primary one is that it duplicates things already in place. The CRMC [Coastal Resources Management Council] is already charged with oversight of harbor operations,” said Gineo.

Hapgood pointed out that no one in the room seemed to know the total number of moorings that exist in Rhode Island. “I have to seriously question whether you can pay for a new patrol simply based on a mooring fee. The math does not add up,” she said.

Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, one of two legislators to testify, echoed the statements of the witnesses that preceded her. Reiterating her opposition, she said that Newport has 1,000 moorings that would be impacted.

“My city is opposed to this,” she told the legislative committee. With the costs of boats, people, and gasoline that would be needed to maintain the patrol established by the bill, she also wondered how such an effort would be financed.

She added, “We’ve already delegated a lot of these tasks to the CRMC and they are doing a good job. This would pre-empt some of their duties and functions. As legislators, we shouldn’t create duplicative efforts.”

Sen. Mark Gee, R-East Greenwich, concurred and said, “I am so disappointed when I hear about laws and regulations that will raise money from our property owners and visitors. If anything, I want to lower costs for boaters. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

No official action was taken and the House bill remains in committee for now. Municipal Government Chair Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown, told Newport This Week that, considering the objections, he wouldn’t be surprised if the sponsors ultimately make a request to send the issues to a study commission.

As for the bill’s potential fate in the other legislative chamber, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed remarked on the proposal at a public workshop in Newport on Feb. 7. “One of my badges of honor in the Senate is that I protect the marine trades industry… This bill has not been introduced in the Senate and has no support there. I will strongly oppose it, if for some reason it gets beyond [the House].”

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