The Hummel Report

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Troubled Waters

For 20 years a federal agency has told North Kingstown officials to remove dozens of commercial moorings from a portion of Wickford Harbor - moorings that have made two marina owners tens of thousands of dollars every year and allowed some boaters to bypass a 20-year waiting list for town-issued mooring. This week Jim Hummel explains why that’s a violation of federal policy and has the story of one woman kicked off her mooring who has made it her mission to try and get it back - and to expose the town along the way.

SCRIPT:

NORTH KINGSTOWN - It is one of the prettiest and most popular places to put a boat in Rhode Island. So much so that Wickford Harbor has a 20-year waiting list to get one of its 275 town-issued moorings that carry a $150 annual permitting fee.

For decades, though, there has been another option for boat owners wanting to bypass the 85-person wait list: Anyone can come in - for a price - and rent a commercial mooring from one of the local marinas to secure a spot in Mill Cove,  the most protected part of the inner harbor. For years the town allocated 55 moorings split between two marinas for an annual cost of $250 each; in turn, each marina can charge as much as the market allows.

The going rate averages $2,000 to $2,500 per season, depending on the size of the boat.

And that’s what Jo-Ann ``Sunny’’ Albanese did in 2014 and 2015, renting a mooring for her 32-foot Pacemaker power boat from Northwick Marina. In May of 2016,  five days before she was ready to go out for a third season, the marina’s owner, Barry Gross  said he wasn’t going to rent to Albanese, leaving her with nowhere to go: all of the slips and moorings were spoken for.

Albanese, who lives primarily on the boat, turned to Wickford Marina owner Paul Galego, who her rents a slip during the winter season after the summer tenants had hauled their boats. Galego had a suggestion for Albanese:

Albanese: ``Paul told me about a federal anchorage that was right out here. He said go drop an anchor out there for now. He says you’ll be right next to Barry’s moorings and you don’t have to pay him a dime.’’

She bought two anchors, had two experts help her set them and waited.

That set off a chain of events over the past year and a half that now involves the Army Corps of Engineers, the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council and the town - which last year passed an ordinance aimed directly at Albanese. It prohibits her from anchoring for more than 48 hours - with a fine of up to $500 a day - every day she’s had her boat in the water this season.

A municipal court judge found her guilty on 24 out of the first batch of tickets, but reduced the fine to $75 each - for a total of $1,800. But she still has more than 100 outstanding tickets and is appealing her original conviction to Superior Court. That means a judge would consider evidence - and the potential fines  - de novo, or from the beginning.

At more than 100 tickets, the tab totals tens of thousands of dollars.

Her plight has opened up a larger can of worms: The Hummel Report has learned most of those commercial moorings violate federal regulations because they are in a federal waterway - a narrow path dredged years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow large boats to maneuver.

The Corps’ policy states that a federal waterway should be open to all on a first-come first-serve basis. And that no one should profit from a mooring. The Army Corps first ordered the commercial moorings removed in 1997, again in 2001, 2008 and 2010. It wasn’t until Albanese began making phone calls that the town finally moved the majority of moorings the past several months.

Hummel: ``You’re pretty well known within the Corps now, right?’’

Albanese: ``Pretty much.’’

Hummel: ``You’ve talked to five, six people?’’

Albanese: ``More.’’

Hummel: ``They know who you are.’’

Albanese: ``Yes.’’

Galego: ``We have a federal project which was supposed to be governed by rules the town had agreed on, where the rules were completely ignored. And the whole mooring area seemed to have been run kind of like a private business.’’

So why did Barry Gross kick Albanese off her mooring?

Galego: ``I called Barry and I asked him why is it that you’re not giving her the mooring? And he said `Well she’s a troublemaker. She drinks.’ Well, she doesn’t’ drink. I couldn’t figure out any reason why they refuse to give it to her.’’

Albanese, who has had chronic health problems says she can’t drink. Gross sent a letter to the town council in January saying he’d gotten complaints about her. Nothing in the town’s regulations prevents him from renting - or not renting - a commercial mooring to whoever he wants. He told us the same thing in a recent phone interview.

Albanese then tried unsuccessfully to have the town council restore her mooring. Council member Doreen Costa was on the losing end of the vote.

Costa: ``There are a lot of people, including council members that think she’s off the wall, off the deep end. But she’s not. And she’s right.’’

Mollis: ``She’s brought a lot of issues to light that the town had to address that we’ve now addressed.’’

Ralph Mollis, who became town manager in February, got up to speed on the mooring problem quickly and has had many conversations with Albanese.

Mollis: ``We did things this summer and fall that I don’t think would have been done for years if Sunny didn’t bring this to our attention, that’s my opinion.’’

The Army Corps of Engineers has no real bite behind its federal bark. It can’t fine the town - only threaten not to do any work, like dredging, going forward. Mill Cove was last dredged in 1962 and still has plenty of depth, so that threat wasn’t enough of an incentive to move the commercial moorings more quickly.

The town’s current and former harbormaster tell The Hummel Report they had been moving the moorings by attrition, two or three a year as people gave them up. But CRMC - often the target of Albanese’s impassioned phone calls and personal visits - finally said this summer that wasn’t good enough.

And the agency said by next month, all of the commercial moorings have to be out of Mill Cove.

Dwyer: ``We have told them this is it, this is the end of the line, no more extensions, no more grace periods, they need to resolve the mooring issue by that point.’’

The town - which repeatedly told the Army Corps over the past two decades it was a more difficult job than it had imagined - managed to move 30 in the last three months, relocating them further out into Wickford Harbor.

Mollis: ` I think we’ve done more with the commercial moorings in the last 90 days than the last six years.’’

Hummel: ``Is there any doubt in your mind that Sunny Albanese was the catalyst for this?’’

Mollis: No doubt, no doubt in my mind.

Albanese and Galego both question the Harbor Commission’s role in failing to force the removal of the commercial moorings. The chairwoman, Barbara Ray and one of the marina owners, Eric Collins, have both been on the commission for 23 years

Galego: ``The problem with the harbor commission is cronyism, you’ve got the same people who have been there for 10, 15, 20 years and you’ve got a town council that completely defers to the harbor commission.’’

In the meantime Albanese spent much of her summer answering to the tickets that have piled up from the North Kingstown Police Department. She had no idea how much each ticket was until she went to court for this first time.

Albanese: ``I go to the arraignment and the judge notifies me it’s $500 a ticket.’’

Hummel: ``What did you think?’’

Albanese: ``I kind of hit the roof, it was like $500 a ticket, are you nuts? Are you people crazy?’’

Hummel: ``Do you view it as harassment in some ways?’’

Costa: ``Oh it’s more than harassment. If I was her I’d get a darn good attorney. And I’ve already told her that. It’s more than harassment, it’s personal.’’

We asked Mollis why the barrage of tickets and if her boat is a public safety hazard why not tow it instead of the continued ticketing?

Mollis: ``If we tow the boat and we’re going to put it in storage, she has no place to live, she probably has no financial resource to take it out of storage because to get it out of storage she has to pay all of the tickets.

Albanese has now appealed directly to the Army Corps of Engineers, asking for the agency to give her a mooring permit in the federal anchorage. While two council members and a state representative wrote in support of her petition, CRMC, the town and the Harbor Commission adamantly oppose it.

Mollis: ``Then at that point, again from a layman’s point of view, it’s the wild wild west. I don’t know how to control who what gets what moorings.’’

Hummel: ``You think it sets a bad precedent.’’

Mollis: ``I think it goes beyond a bad precedent, I think it creates create havoc in the waterway system, I don’t know if it’s even appropriate at that point for us to have the harbor division, the harbormaster. At that point it’s the wild wild west.’’

The Corps tells us it has up to 120 days from Sept. 29th to make a decision.

Galego: `` If they had just given her that mooring, there would have been no trouble and they would have been able to continue on just as they’ve been for the past 20 years without any question.’’

Albanese has heard the same thing privately from some town officials

Albanese: ``They thought it was going to blow over up until three weeks ago. They said we thought this was going to blow over.’’

Hummel: ``As it had in 2010 and 2001 and 1997.’’

Albanese: ``Yes.’’

Hummel: ``But it hasn’t blown over has it?’’

Albanese: ``No and he said, `I don’t know what you did.’

Hummel: ``Who said that, one of the councilmen?’’

Albanese: ``He says: `You made a big impact in this town.’ He said you were able to do what we haven’t been able to do in 20 years.’’

In North Kingstown, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.