Champlin's Marina plan has roiled Block Island for 20 years. Supreme Court has the final say
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Supreme Court took a major step toward deciding whether a controversial marina expansion should go forth on Block Island, bringing an end to a case that began nearly two decades ago.
Four justices listened to four attorneys argue opposite sides of the case over the course of more than 90 minutes Wednesday, the last proceeding before issuing a decision. (Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg recused herself because her husband, Robert D. Goldberg, is the attorney for Champlin’s Marina, which first proposed an expansion of its property on the Great Salt Pond in 2003.)
The high court must decide whether a 56-page decision by Superior Court Judge Kristin Rodgers rejecting the proposal will stand, or whether a scaled-down expansion can go forward under a settlement that was reached while the appeal of Rodgers' decision was pending.
The settlement was reached by the state Coastal Resources Management Council and Champlin's, without public input or the blessing of project opponents.
The details of the “memorandum of understanding,” dubbed by the opponents as a secret backroom deal, were first revealed in a Hummel Report investigation published in the Providence Sunday Journal in February 2021.
Anthony DeSisto, the CRMC’s attorney, and Goldberg brought in retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams in late 2020 to mediate the case, which ultimately led to approval of the scaled-down plan by the CRMC in a Zoom meeting between Christmas and New Year’s Day that none of the opponents knew about.
The opponents did not want Williams involved in the mediation, because a decade earlier he had written a dissent that, in effect, supported the expansion.
In his argument Wednesday, Goldberg told the justices that after 18 years of agency review, and litigation that reached both the Superior and Supreme Courts: “This is a case that cried out for alternate dispute resolution.”
But Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell jumped in, asking whether the CRMC had the authority to mediate a settlement, noting that project opponents were not obligated to enter mediation.
Goldberg said the opponents, or intervenors, “can’t stand off and try to control the process,” – to which Justice William P. Robinson III noted that the state Supreme Court 19 years ago declared the intervenors to be a party to the litigation.
The opponents include the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, the Block Island Conservancy, the Block Island Land Trust and the town of New Shoreham. The Conservation Law Foundation later joined in.
The opponents were concerned, among other things, about the effect the expansion would have on the town’s mooring field.
Justice Erin Lynch-Prata questioned DeSisto and the opponents’ attorney R. Daniel Prentiss about the opponents’ assertion that the CRMC had no right to negotiate a settlement after the case reached Superior Court.
She asked DeSisto if the CRMC had ever reached a settlement in such circumstances. DeSisto said there have been cases, “not many,” where there has been a settlement.
Robinson and Lynch each asked if there had been a hearing after the settlement was reached to offer the public a chance to comment. DeSisto said there was not.
Assistant Attorney General Sarah Rice said the settlement must be rejected, as there was no public participation and no findings on the effects the revised expansion would have on shellfish, soil in the pond and the environment – issues CRMC addressed in the early stages of the case when it rejected Champlin’s application.
Prentiss, who has been the attorney for the opponents since the case began in 2003, repeated what he told The Hummel Report a year ago: that Goldberg and DeSisto went ahead with the mediation, despite assurances that they would not do so without the town of New Shoreham’s participation.
“Why would we [enter] mediation on a case we had won in Superior Court hands down?” Prentiss asked the justices. “To think that the CRMC in a private, unnoticed meeting, when we were clearly given a deceptive description of what this meeting would be … the thought they can in a private deal bargain away the judgment we fought for 17 years to obtain is abhorrent.”
The Supreme Court took no action Wednesday. It will likely issue a decision before it adjourns for the year in late June, or early July.
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