Stonington marina owners suggest ways to help their industry thrive

Stonington — More than 20 marina owners and others with connections to the business met with town officials Thursday afternoon to suggest ways the town could help their segment of the economy.

The meeting was organized by the town’s Economic Development Commission and Department of Planning, which have been holding similar forums with other sectors of the community and then proposing zoning revisions.

“We want to get a sense of what are the special needs of your marinas and how we can make it easier for you and your customers to function,” First Selectman Rob Simmons told the group.

The forum, which lasted more than an hour and was held at the LaGrua Center in the borough, resulted in a wide-ranging discussion on topics from zoning and taxation to water quality and industry promotion.

Director of Planning Jason Vincent said the town wants to determine if there are factors that are preventing success or are barriers to investment.

He said the town will now take the suggestions, collect data and see what steps can be taken to assist the industry.

The town’s Plan of Conservation and Development recognizes marinas as an important economic driver in town and recommends investigating changes needed to assist this unique sector of the town’s economy.

Stan Cardinal, the owner of Cardinal Cove marina, and Joyce Ballou, the owner of Greenhaven Marina, were among those who said town zoning regulations, which classify their operations as legal nonconforming uses, prevent them from expanding, making improvements or appealing denials. Ballou also questioned why the value of labor on any upgrade is considered when the town figures out its value for taxation purposes.

Ballou also urged the town to improve enforcement of speeding and other violations on the Pawcatuck River where her marina is located.

Other owners said the value the town places on their property for taxation is not related to its value as a marina but is based on the value of the land, which can be used to construct “a McMansion.” Ballou said her taxes have gone up 500 percent over the past 12 years.

Paul Goetz, the owner of the 50-slip Stonington Marina, said he is concerned about the water quality in Wequetequock Cove, where his marina is located and which he said has degraded over the years, the result of not extending sewers into the area.

“Water quality is the No. 1 thing that draws people to our town,” he said.

Lou Allyn, a member of the Mystic Harbor Management Commission, said the increasing number of “outspoken and antagonistic” residents who complain about water-related uses such as the Quiambaug Cove residents fighting a commercial oystering proposal will result in more and more pressure to limit marine commercial activity.

Tiger LeBelle, the owner of Connor’s and O’Brien marina in Pawcatuck, said the state of Connecticut does nothing to help marinas compared to Rhode Island, where there are tax breaks and training programs for those who want to get into the industry. Some of his competitors are just across the Pawcatuck River, he said.

Others said the state's high sales tax on boat purchases — Rhode Island has none and Florida caps taxes at $18,000, even for the most expensive boats — forces people to buy and register boats elsewhere.

Other suggestions were re-activating the defunct Pawcatuck River Harbor Management Commission, using vacant mills along Mechanic Street for boat storage, better promoting the town’s marinas, preserving the Town Dock fishing fleet, using technology to improving enforcement on the water and loosening restrictions in the marine commercial zone.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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