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RI Supreme Court rejects settlement that would have allowed Block Island marina expansion


PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Supreme Court on Friday refused to ratify a proposed settlement for a controversial marina expansion on Block Island — an agreement struck by the owners and the Coastal Resources Management Council, largely out of public view and with no notice to opponents that the agency was voting on it.

Those opponents called it a secret, backroom deal.


The details of the settlement and how it was reached were covered in a Hummel Report investigation published in the Providence Sunday Journal in February. The day after the story ran, Attorney General Peter Neronha asked to intervene in the case, which is pending before the state’s high court. He said the mediation process that led to the settlement was problematic.


“My office intervened because the process utilized here by the CRMC and Champlin’s was non-transparent, excluded these important additional stakeholders, and resulted in an agreement that failed to contain the environmental findings necessary to protect one of Rhode Island’s great natural resources — Block Island’s Great Salt Pond,” Neronha said in a statement after Friday’s decision.


“Everyone is elated. It’s like Christmas in March,” said longtime Block Island resident Henry duPont, a director on the board of The Committee for The Great Salt Pond, one of the groups that has been fighting the proposal for the last 17 years.


Robert Goldberg, an attorney for Champlin’s, said he is reviewing the Supreme Court's ruling, but insisted the high court did not “reject” the settlement proposal; he said the court merely indicated that it was not the right venue to consider it.


"While the court declined to issue the consent order, saying the Supreme Court was not the appropriate place for the requested action, it is important to note the Court did not dispute the legitimacy of the settlement and also validated the use of mediation as a means to settle disputes,” Goldberg said.


Longtime opposition to marina project

Champlin’s first proposed a major expansion to its facility on the Great Salt Pond, also known as New Harbor, in 2003. The expansion would have taken four acres of the harbor, extending the pier 240 more feet into the water; added 3,000 feet of pier to the existing 6,000 feet; installed an additional 743 of floating dock; and added 140 vessels to the 250 already allowed at the facility. 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.


A coalition of environmental groups, and the town of New Shoreham, banded together and waged a costly legal battle that saw the case work its way through years of CRMC hearings, Superior Court litigation and ultimately two appeals to the Supreme Court. When a Superior Court judge issued a lengthy decision last year rejecting Champlin’s proposal, the marina owners appealed to the state Supreme Court.


But a mediation in December led by retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Williams that included CRMC’s attorney Anthony DeSisto and Champlin’s attorney Robert Goldberg excluded the opponents — even though DeSisto had emailed the town solicitor for New Shoreham saying mediation would not go forward without the participation of Block Island, and, by extension, the other opponents of the project.


The opponents wanted no part of it. They had prevailed at every part of the agency and court process and felt strongly that “mediation” would only give Champlin’s something it had not been able to get over the last 17 years of hearings and litigation.


Case reverts back to appeal stage

Friday’s decision means the case reverts to where it was in November when Champlin’s appealed to The Supreme Court. The case is not likely to be heard until later this year.


R. Daniel Prentiss, an attorney representing the opponents from the beginning of the case, said Saturday: “The Supreme Court properly dealt with this (request to ratify the settlement) as more of a distraction than anything substantive having to do with the merits — or lack of merit — with the appeal. The court clearly was not interested in following this antic the CRMC and Champlin’s attempted to foist on the court.”


It is unclear how, if the Supreme Court decided not to ratify the proposed settlement between Champlin’s and the CRMC, it could ultimately be implemented. In February, Goldberg said he believed the case was over and needed no further review by the Supreme Court, a sentiment echoed by Williams. They equated it to two parties in litigation who reach an out-of-court settlement.


The Hummel Report asked on Saturday whether Goldberg still believes that, and, if so, whether Champlin’s plans to go forward under the terms of the settlement and start the expansion.


Goldberg, through a spokeswoman, responded: “As it stands now, the settlement is still in place. The order from the court is very complex and unique and we are currently reviewing it. We will of course comply with the order. We are weighing all of our options and will confer with CRMC on next steps."


Attorney general hails decision

Neronha said: “I am grateful that the Supreme Court agreed with our position, and that this matter will now proceed as it always should have — with the Court’s review of the Superior Court’s well-reasoned decision denying Champlain’s marina expansion,” Neronha said.


Prentiss and duPont said that beyond this case, there is a larger issue of the role the coastal resources council plays in protecting the state’s coastal assets in light of how it tried to settle the Champlin’s case with no public input.


“It begs the question: why the state agency charged with protecting our coastal environment is making backroom deals with unscrupulous developers,” duPont said.


Prentiss added: “What is the state of Rhode Island going to do about a quasi judicial agency charged with protecting the state’s unique coastal resources when that agency would attempt to enter into a private agreement to counteract a formal and very carefully thought out decision.”


CRMC did not respond to a request for comment.


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