Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 13, 2021
New Stonington waterfront ordinance proposed
Stirs up fishing community
by Leslie Landrigan
A proposed harbor ordinance has triggered distress among fishermen and lobster buyers who fear losing control of their livelihood to an unsympathetic select board, they said at a May 11 Harbor Committee meeting.
But the ordinance does little to change the select board’s authority over the Harbor Committee, which has only had an advisory role since its inception, say the selectmen in a letter to the Island Ad-Vantages (see page 5). The existing Harbor and Waters Ordinance, passed in 2006, lays out the Harbor Committee’s powers as “recommending” to the selectmen policy, improvements, regulations, fees and individuals for the job of harbormaster.
The proposed Stonington Fish Pier, Harbor, and Waters Ordinance would consolidate and update the ordinances governing the Fish Pier, public landings and waters of Stonington Harbor, as well as the powers of the Harbor Committee. A vote will be taken at the May 15 annual Town Meeting on the ordinance.
“It is truly clear that these 14 pages of power grab was written behind closed doors in the dark of night under the cloak of COVID,” wrote lobster dealer Jim Eaton, who runs Sunshine Seafood, in an Another View column to the newspaper (see page 4).
But Evelyn Duncan, the selectmen’s representative to the Harbor Committee, told the half-dozen dealers and fishermen at the May 11 meeting that it’s up to them to participate in the process, something they haven’t always done.
“If you guys don’t step up to the plate and say this isn’t a good idea, then we have a problem,” she said. “People need to get involved.”
Duncan said the ordinance isn’t perfect. “It might need some tweaks,” she said. “If it fails [at Town Meeting], I’m expecting you guys to come up to the plate, and say, ‘This is what it is.’ If it passes, I want you guys to go through this thing and say, ‘This one isn’t so good, we need to change,’ and tweak it again.
“It is the harbor, it is the Fish Pier and it is what we are. It is the major industry in the town.”
Lobster dealer Bill Damon, who runs Damon Family Seafood, said the proposed ordinance brings uncertainty to his business. For example, he said, he works 20 hours a day in summer. However, the ordinance requires gear and equipment to be removed from the Fish Pier at day’s end.
“I could easily see we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do,” Damon said. “I don’t want to get into this mess, I don’t want to get into a fight.”
He’s also worried about his floats, he said. The ordinance said he has to consult with the Army Corps of Engineers about them, something he’s never had to do before.
“I just want to know,” Damon said. “We have a pretty good-sized business. Or maybe you don’t want lobster buyers there at all. Just tell us.”
Harbor Committee member Richard Larrabee Jr. later asked Damon if he got his questions answered. “I give up,” Damon said.
“So I guess you just keep doing what you’re doing until someone tells you otherwise,” Larrabee said.
Illegal lobster boat races
Town Manager Kathleen Billings said an advantage to the new ordinance is that the Harbor Committee can change policies without going to Town Meeting, as the existing ordinance requires.
Billings said some of the restrictions in the proposed ordinance aren’t new, they just hadn’t been enforced. For example, she said, the lobster boat races are technically illegal under both ordinances. But the proposed ordinance establishes a way to change that.
“This gives you a chance to work on something,” she said.
But Harbor Committee Chairman Hilton Turner said it’s not that easy to do, even without Town Meeting approval.
“It would take a year, the way people can meet and with COVID,” he said. “That kind of turns me off.”
Why raise fees?
Turner also noted the new ordinance moves the power to set fees from the Harbor Committee to the select board.
Darryl Williams, a fisherman, said it seems as if the selectmen think the fees aren’t high enough.
“Why would the Harbor Committee raise fees on fishermen?” Williams said. “You keep saying you don’t have a dog in the fight, but it seems to me the dog is higher revenue for the town.”
But Billings said the Harbor Committee had in the past failed to raise fuel fees enough so they could support the fuel operation.
In a phone interview, Selectman Travis Fifield said the Harbor Committee uses money from dealers’ permits to keep the prices low on boat fees—$10 a foot since the 1980s. “They [the fees] haven’t changed literally since I was born,” he said.
Fifield also said the proposed ordinance gives new power to the Harbor Committee to limit dealer permits. Earlier this year, two dealers wanted permits to operate on the already crowded pier. The select board had no choice but to grant them, Fifield said.
“If you deny a permit and it went to court we would have lost,” he said.
The select board and the Harbor Committee were supposed to work together to write a new ordinance, Fifield said “We want them to be involved,” he said. “All they do is fight. You can’t get any work out of it because there’s so much chaos.”