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Block Island girds for next battle in development wars

Champlin's Marina on Block Island is one of the epicenters of island tourism gone wild, with boats.

It's hard to describe how crazed the overcrowded Champlin's docks can be on a summer day, but one of the best examples I can think of was a full-on party I saw underway one morning aboard a big cabin cruiser.

It was an hour when most of us are still working on coffee, but the boat partyers at Champlin's were well on their way to the cocktail part of their day, with loud drunken shouts and cries and amplified music drifting out over the otherwise tranquil harbor.

The boat was named for a sexual act, one insulting to women, and I couldn't help but wonder what the captain might do one day in an emergency that required using the boat name to summon the Coast Guard on a VHF radio.

No wonder that Block Islanders who watch with dismay as the number of careening, loud mopeds and public drunks increase each year, have tried hard to draw the line at Champlin's, which has been working to expand its footprint in Great Salt Pond and grow the summer party with a vast number of new boat slips.

This winter, just when islanders thought they had finally vanquished the monster of an expanded Champlin's, it reared its head again, as ugly and as menacing as ever.

This time, though, there is a new twist, with lots of political intrigue and a distinct feeling that the island was sold down Narragansett Bay by the mainland establishment.

Champlin's first proposed an enormous, acres-wide expansion into the harbor, gobbling up much of the town's mooring field, in 2003. The town and a consortium of island preservation groups mobilized, and the fight was on.

The plan was ultimately turned down by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. The marina appealed that decision to Superior Court, and after long and twisted proceedings, the court finally affirmed the CRMC denial of the expansion in February 2020.

Islanders celebrated what they thought was the end of their long ordeal to protect the public integrity of Great Salt Pond.

The marina appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court last summer.

And then, in a strange interlude of insider dealing, described well by Rhode Island's nonprofit investigative team, the Hummel Report, the CRMC approved a new plan to allow Champlin's to expand into 1.5 acres of the pond.

The coastal regulators met in an executive session the week after Christmas, and there aren't even minutes available of what happened in the session behind closed doors.

The surprise deal was negotiated in arbitration talks between the marina owners and the CRMC. The town and the community groups that had been part of the lawsuit, thinking the fight had been won, chose not to participate. The deal wasn't even reported in the Block Island newspaper until well into the new year.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha moved swiftly when the public's interest in its limited and valuable marine resource, Great Salt Pond, was threatened.

Neronha has asked the state Supreme Court to allow him to intervene, complaining that the normal regulatory process had been bypassed in an end-run that left the public out of the decision-making process.

Stay tuned, and see what happens in a state where there is an attorney general looking out for the public's interest and not protecting insiders.

It will be a while yet before the spring thaw arrives on Block Island. But the war against unbridled development and the excesses of tourism is already heating up.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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