A statewide agency that oversees Rhode Island’s coastal areas has
injected itself into what was already a cantankerous local debate about access to moorings in one of the Northeast’s most popular ports, Newport Harbor, creating an even bigger controversy that could affect local and transient boaters in the summers to come.
About 900 moorings are in Newport Harbor, and the city categorizes them as private or commercial. Some 600 of the moorings are private, which means locals can put their own boats on them. The other 300 moorings are commercial, which means they’re open for rental to transient boaters.
This past year, there’s been a lot of discussion and, well, argument about the private moorings. Around 600 locals are reportedly on a waiting list to get a private mooring for their boat, and some say they’ve been waiting for 10 or 15 years already.
Trying to resolve that backlog, Newport’s City Council made a change this past March, telling current holders of private moorings that starting in September 2020, they will no longer be allowed to transfer use of the moorings to any family member they want, as they could in the past. Instead, the holders of private moorings will be allowed only a one-time transfer, and only to a spouse. After that, each private mooring will go back into a pool, and somebody from the waiting list will have a chance to get it. All the haranguing about that change led some people on the waiting list for private moorings to take a look at commercial moorings too, and to ask at public meetings why the city of Newport even has commercial moorings at all. The local boaters felt their desire to use the waterfront should come first, before transient boaters should even be considered.
“People on waiting lists are frustrated,” says Louis Gray, owner of Newport Mooring Services, which offers commercial moorings for transients. “Everybody has to wait the amount of time it takes for people to give up private moorings. The harbor is full. We only have so much space. The private moorings people on those waiting lists were trying to find ways in which more moorings could be available to them, which we all understand. You get frustrated.”
Some folks, it appears, got so frustrated that they involved Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council. It’s a statewide agency responsible for preserving, protecting and developing coastal areas, and it has the authority to bigfoot its way into the local debate.
In April, the CRMC’s deputy director, Jeffrey Willis, reportedly sent a letter to Newport’s harbormaster, stating that it had come to the agency’s attention that some commercial moorings had been transferred in a way that contravened the state’s laws and regulations for coastal resources. Specifically, the letter was about more than 20 of the city’s 300 commercial moorings that, according to local news reports, had been purchased for the exclusive use of New York Yacht Club members and their guests, at an estimated price of about $40,000 per mooring.
“These are commercial moorings, but they’re being used by the New York Yacht Club,” Gray says. “Their members are coming from up and down the East Coast,
calling the club and saying they want to come up and rent a mooring for three days in Newport. The club is a business and says, ‘Sure, let me take a reservation. We have availability.’”
According to local news reports, the CRMC’s letter advised the Newport harbormaster that people with commercial moorings may not “assign, transfer or sell” those moorings to anyone else, leading to public speculation that the moorings the New York Yacht Club had cornered usage on might somehow, possibly, someday, go back into public circulation.
The CRMC, after stating its position in writing, left the matter in the City of Newport’s hands to work out. City Solicitor Christopher Behand told Newport This Week in early June that there was no plan to revoke or reverse the transfers of moorings that were already completed. He said the situation was in its infancy, and that the city would have to address and respond to the state agency’s letter. Months, if not years, are likely to go by before the matter is resolved, Gray says.
In the meantime, everyone with an interest in who gets to use Newport’s moorings is left watching and waiting, trying to figure out exactly what happened already, and what might happen next. “Did it get done the way the state would’ve like to have seen it done? I don’t know,” Gray says. “We’re going to find out.”
While that situation plays out, Gray adds, people like him, who earn their living by renting out moorings to transients, want boaters everywhere to know that no matter how much squawking people might hear about the mooring debate, nothing at all is changing in terms of accessibility in Newport Harbor. Transient moorings are still available on a first-come, first-served basis, by contacting Gray at Newport Mooring Services, the team at Oldport Marine Services, or the Newport harbormaster.
Oldport publishes mooring rates online of $50 a night for boats measuring up to 45 feet in length overall, and $65 a night for boats from 46 to 65 feet.
“Newport is open for business,” Gray says. “We are all here ready to make their stay good. Oldport and us, we have openings and availability to rent to transients, and we have an anchorage in the harbor as an alternative to a mooring, if that’s what they want.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.