Local harbormasters and harbor management officials are questioning proposed legislation that would add a state mooring fee on top of the existing municipal fee.
Reps. Joseph Trillo (R-Dist. 24) of Warwick and Scott Slater (D-Dist. 10) of Providence, co-sponsored the legislation, House Bill 2015 H-5257, that would allow the state to collect between $150- $500 in mooring fees per vessel, depending on the size of the mooring. The proposed bill would add a $150 fee for moorings up to 500 pounds; $250 for moorings between 500-1,000 pounds; and $500 for moorings of more than 1,000 pounds.
“This is something different and this comes out of left field,” said Harvey Cataldo, chairman of the Narragansett Harbor Management Commission. “The state comes up with this idea and I don’t know how they came up with it.”
“I found out about that last Tuesday morning and when I read it, I had no idea that was coming, that’s for sure,” said Narragansett Harbormaster Kevin Connors. “No one notified me about it at all. I found out about it from a third party.”
Cataldo said there are approximately 300 moorings along the shores of South County. Most of those moorings are for vessels less than 500 pounds, he said, but moorings near the University of Rhode Island Bay campus can accommodate vessels of more than 1,000 pounds.
Narragansett, for example, already charges $8 per foot for resident mooring fees and $12 per foot for nonresidents, but the town has a minimum rate of $120 for residents and $180 for nonresidents.
“You’re going to find a lot more people starting to trailer their boats,” Cataldo said. “It’s an enormous fee. I know one person who said, ‘Me and my wife have been hemming and hawing about whether to keep this boat in the water.’ This would be the tipping point for them.”
In East Greenwich, mooring fees are $165 for residents and $300 for nonresidents or commercial vessels. The town takes in approximately $28,000 in mooring fees annually, according to Harbormaster James Cullen.
“The people with the million-dollar houses who have million-dollar boats, this isn’t going to affect them,” Cullen said. “But the local guy, who has a 20-footer and wants to take his family out and wants to do some fishing, if you tack on a couple hundred bucks a year before you even splash the boat, it’s not going to help him.”
“I think this is a tax on the boaters who aren’t as fortunate as the other boaters,” Conners said. “The people who have the 50-foot boat aren’t going to be hit by this fee. But the little guy who has the 13-foot whaler on Narrow River? How fair is that? That just doesn’t make any sense.”
Trillo said he brought the bill forward after constituents complained about not being able to get a mooring and about “a lot of abuses going on right now” with moorings.
One of those abuses, Trillo stated, is people who “keep it for their life and the life of [the] entire family,” which he believes is unfair. “This is to stop people from owning moorings and leaving them in their wills,” he said. “We’re trying to create a fairer system for moorings.”
Cataldo countered at least some towns, including Narragansett, prevent families from keeping a mooring for generations.
According to the Narragansett Harbor Management Plan, a mooring owner can bequeath it to an immediate family member one time. So if a child inherits a mooring from his parents, he cannot bequeath it to his children. The plan also says if individuals choose to give up the mooring, those on the waiting list have the opportunity to apply for it.
Connors said Narragansett town ordinances prevent a mooring from being rented to a third party. If someone purchases a waterfront home that includes a mooring, they have a right to it, but still must apply and be approved to use it.
State mooring fees would fund DEM
The bill specifies the money collected would go to the state Department of Environmental Management “for the sole use of maintaining all harbors’ access and safety.”
Trillo said harbormasters patrol many harbors around the state, but said there is “no policing being done” in the open bay and “a lot of abuse” occurs there. The fees would help DEM, or possibly the state Coastal Resources Management Council, have funding to patrol the bay, he said.
“There’s a lot of drunk driving [on the water],”Trillo said. “There’s a lot of rule breaking and there’s no mechanism in place to enforce existing laws that are on the books.”
In an email, DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati said DEM recently learned about the legislation and “had no role in developing it.” She added DEM officials needed to learn more about the purpose and goals of the bill before taking an official position on it.
During a forum Saturday morning between the Newport City Council and state legislators at Newport Public Library, Rep. Lauren Carson (D-Dist. 75) of Newport said she contacted DEM Director Janet Coit for more information about the mooring bill after hearing concerns. Carson said in that email conversation, Coit said DEM was not in favor of the bill and hadn’t been consulted about the proposed legislation before it was submitted.
“There are a lot of pieces of legislation that are out there and it may or may not have legs,” Carson said. “It’s really terrific we caught this fast and there’s been a pretty aggressive push back against it.”
Trillo said DEM may not be aware of the bill, but that legislators “don’t have to call DEM about it” before submitting a bill. He said it was still undetermined if DEM or CRMC would handle enforcement, and hearings on the matter would continue.
Connors, who is a retired chief from the U.S. Coast Guard and spent three decades at its Point Judith station, said incidents of people operating vessels while intoxicated were going to happen, just as they do with motorists. But he said harbor masters are patrolling and can call in the U.S. Coast Guard or local police for assistance.
Cullen said East Greenwich has Cove Management and Harbor Management commissions, and harbormasters to enforce the rules of the waterways.
“East Greenwich always has been a waterfront town,” Cullen said. “It began as a fishing boom and a port. It has maintained that for hundreds of years. We’ve tried to maintain that maritime tradition to keep boating affordable for local guys who don’t have a lot of money.”
Cullen also wondered who would collect the state fees if the bill passed.
“The town is still going to have to do the work. The harbormaster still has to be out there enforcing the rules and doing search and rescue and helping the sailors,” he said.