Champlin's Marina expansion on Block Island struck down by state Supreme Court. Here's why.
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Supreme Court has rejected — for a final time — a proposed marina expansion on Block Island, bringing an end to nearly two decades of hearings and litigation over the controversial project.
The high court, in a highly anticipated 54-page decision released Friday, upheld a 2020 decision by a Superior Court judge that said Champlin’s Marina could not expand its operation into the island’s Great Salt Pond, also known as New Harbor.
And it rejected the validity of a side agreement allowing a scaled-down expansion, agreed to in late 2020 by the marina and the state Coastal Resources Management Council behind closed doors, that left opponents of the project out of the process — and fuming. That back-room deal, as the opponents called it, was the subject of a Hummel Report investigation published in The Providence Sunday Journal in February 2021.
“Almost 20 years of angst evaporated in one sentence. It was pretty amazing,” said Henry DuPont, after reading the last paragraph of the decision Friday morning. DuPont is a longtime island resident, former Town Council member, and a director on the board of the Committee for The Great Salt Pond, one of the groups that fought the expansion.
“The good people of Block Island won today, our natural resources won today, the people of Rhode Island won today,” said Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, who joined the case, filing a motion highly critical of CRMC. “Not only because this will preserve the Great Salt Pond, but also because of the [principle] that regulatory agencies in this state have to follow the law and make findings of fact and conclusions of law that the public can see and [a court] can review,” he added.
Robert Goldberg, an attorney for Champlin’s, issued a statement Friday afternoon that said, in part:
“We are disappointed with the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s ruling in the nearly 20-year dispute over a limited expansion of Champlin’s Marina on Block Island’s Great Salt Pond. 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.”
What would the Champlin's Marina expansion have entailed?
In 2003, Champlin’s proposed nearly doubling the size of its facility, set on the western edge of the harbor. It would have extended its existing marina 240 feet into the Great Salt Pond in order to accommodate 140 additional boats. Champlin’s also has a hotel, restaurant and swimming pool.
The opponents were concerned, among other things, about the effect the expansion would have on the town’s mooring field.
That proposal went through years of hearings at CRMC, and litigation in Superior Court and the state Supreme Court. The opponents spent more than half a million dollars in legal fees, fighting it every step of the way.
And they thought they had “finally" won when Superior Court Judge Kristen E. Rodgers issued a 56-page decision, seven years in the making, in 2020. DuPont said the islanders believed it was a bulletproof repudiation of the Champlin’s proposal. But the marina owners appealed it to the Supreme Court, in part questioning why it took so long for Rodgers to reach a decision.
The Supreme Court had the same concern, writing: “We note that the trial justice filed a lengthy and meticulous decision approximately six years after the parties filed their memoranda. The record contains no explanation for the lapse of time, and we are troubled by the seemingly unwarranted delay.”
Goldberg, in his statement Friday, reiterated that concern. “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.”
When asked about the delay by The Hummel Report in early 2021, Rodgers, through a court spokesman, declined comment.
How the closed-door mediation came about
CRMC’s attorney Anthony DeSisto and Goldberg, a former Senate minority leader, ran into each other in the spring of 2019 working as lobbyists at the State House. Before Rodgers’ decision, they had talked about potential mediation.
In the fall of 2020, DeSisto suggested bringing in retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Williams, who has extensive mediation experience, to see if the parties could find middle ground.
The Hummel Report investigation included wide-ranging interviews with all the primary players in the Champlin’s case that revealed publicly for the first time details of how that conversation — and the events that unfolded over the next 18 months — resulted in a settlement approved by the full CRMC days before New Year’s. It came at a virtual meeting the opponents knew nothing about.
The opponents — which include the Town of New Shoreham, The Committee for The Great Salt Pond, the Block Island Land Trust and the Block Island Conservancy — wanted no part of mediation. They had prevailed at every part of the agency and court process. R. Daniel Prentiss, their attorney, said they believed “mediation” would only give Champlin’s something it had not been able to get over the last 17 years of hearings and litigation.
They also took issue with Williams being the mediator. As a Supreme Court justice, he had written a dissenting opinion a decade earlier in a decision against Champlin’s.
“If this had been formally involved in the mediation program, we would have rejected Frank Williams as a mediator,” Prentiss said at the time. “This is not because [the opponents] disrespect Williams, but that they could never justify to the stakeholders who have supported this effort for 17 years having the case mediated by the judge who wrote the opinion that they should lose the case.”
In November 2020, DeSisto sent an email to the solicitor for New Shoreham that mediation would only go forward if the town (and by extension the other opponents) were on board. They unanimously rejected it, but DeSisto, Williams and Goldberg went ahead anyway, meeting at a South County hotel — with no public input.
DeSisto told The Hummel Report in January 2021 that the email, assuring the solicitor that mediation was contingent on the opponents’ involvement, was incorrect.
“I created some confusion there,” DeSisto said at the time. “If you take a look at the meeting minutes, that’s not what [the CRMC] voted on. That was a misstatement on my part.”
Neronha said Friday: “When you go into a hotel room and negotiate [a deal] and it doesn’t tether the new decision to findings of fact and conclusions of law, the public doesn’t know what you did and why. And the Superior Court can’t review it.”
The issue heads to the Supreme Court — twice
Champlin’s then asked the Supreme Court to make the side agreement permanent.
The high court directed Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Lanphear to hold hearings in the summer of 2021 to sift through whether the closed-door agreement was valid.
After listening to testimony from seven witnesses over 13 days — including retired Chief Justice Williams taking the witness stand — Lanphear concluded that the settlement, known as a memorandum of understanding, was “created with propriety and [is] sufficiently conclusive.”
Neronha issued a blistering critique of Lanphear’s 66-page decision.
“Rhode Islanders should be deeply disappointed by today’s Superior Court decision and rightly worried about what this decision means for us should it survive its eventual appeal,” he said in September 2021.
As it turns out, the decision did not survive appeal.
The Supreme Court, in this week’s decision, disagreed with Lanphear’s ruling, saying the CRMC could only modify a decision that it had approved — not denied. “Because Champlin’s application was denied … the CRMC did not have the authority to modify the final decision,” Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell wrote for the court. (Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg — Robert Goldberg’s wife — has recused herself from all of the Champlin’s proceedings at the high court.)
“We therefore hold that [Judge Lanphear] erred in determining that the CRMC and Champlin’s had authority to mediate. Accordingly, we decline to incorporate and merge the [memorandum of understanding] into a consent order of this court,” Suttell added.
“In my view, expediency was more important to the CRMC than getting it right,” Neronha said.
Goldberg, in his statement on Friday, said: “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.”
After 20 years, 'It's finally over'
Prentiss, who has represented the opponents from the beginning, said he was not worried that it took so long for the Supreme Court to make a decision. Oral arguments came in April, and traditionally, a decision is issued by the time the high court adjourns for the summer.
“You have an agency [CRMC] that clearly acted in a rogue manner, a totally out-of-control, lawless manner,” Prentiss said Friday. “My expectation was that the Supreme Court was going to write very carefully.” He added that if the justices believed Champlin’s had been wrongly denied, it likely would have issued a decision more quickly.
“It’s finally over, and I’m really glad,” Prentiss said.
DuPont said he believes Judge Rodgers’ 2020 decision rejecting Champlin’s proposal laid the groundwork for the eventual outcome on Friday.
“Judge Rodgers deserves a lot of the credit,” he said. “We thought the decision was bulletproof, and it turns out it was.”
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