If Watch Hill Cove is anything, it’s highly desirable. Boaters, kayakers, swimmers, fishermen, tourists, vacation homeowners, and year-round residents of Westerly all want to get to the sheltered inlet at the end of the Pawcatuck River, right by the open waters of Block Island Sound.

It’s where the Watch Hill Yacht Club has its imposing three-story clubhouse atop an array of pillars and luxury pleasure vessels and sailboats dot a postcard-worthy view from Napatree Point across the water to Watch Hill’s central village.

But this coveted spot now lacks federal regulations meant to protect public access, thanks to the work of government officials at the local, state, and federal levels that benefited private interests in Watch Hill.

When town officials learned in recent years that federal law required public access to boat moorings in the cove, they did not use that as an opportunity to expand access to the water. Instead, an investigation by The Public’s Radio found officials lobbied Rhode Island’s congressional delegation to change federal law and keep the moorings in use by private hands.

‘A high crime’

Watch Hill Cove looks the way it does today because of work done by the federal government decades ago. A spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers said the U.S. government dredged the cove as part of a federal navigation project in the area in 1948 and 1949. According to an Army Corps information guidebook, the total work cost the federal government what would amount to more than $2 million in today’s money.

Because federal tax dollars paid for the dredging, Watch Hill Cove was designated a federal anchorage area, where access is required to be open to all boaters on equal terms. That means access should have been managed in “the general public interest” and in a way that “made no arbitrary distinction or requirement of any kind,” according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers standards.

But what emerged over time was something different. The cove filled up with moorings and boaters claimed them as their own, effectively blocking other boaters from much of the area. Eventually the Watch Hill Yacht Club, founded in 1913, and its members came to own most of these moorings.

“There was no authority, it seemed, that was in Watch Hill Cove. And people characterized it as literally a ‘pirate cove,’” said former Westerly Town Council member Jean Gagnier. “They were squatting. The squatters show up and they don't have any authority, but they're there.”

Then in 2018, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to put pressure on the town of Westerly to address the lack of access to the area that federal law required. Army Corps of Engineers Col. William Conde sent the Westerly Town Council written notice, saying he’d been made aware that moorings in the cove were being managed in a way that “limits access on the basis of yacht club membership.”

“Membership in a specific yacht club should not be a prerequisite for obtaining a mooring in the Federal anchorage area,” Conde wrote. “The Town must ensure proper use and access to the Federal resource...”

Town officials realized if action wasn’t taken, they ran the risk of the Army Corps removing the moorings in Watch Hill Cove entirely. At that time in 2018, the town was working to draft an official harbor management plan that spells out its current and proposed regulations around public shoreline access, water quality, storm preparedness, and mooring management. In Rhode Island, harbor management plans need to be approved by the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council. CRMC, though, would not approve Westerly’s plan if its moorings policies in Watch Hill Cove violated federal law.

Westerly faced a choice: work with the yacht club to force open and equitable public access in the cove, or ask Congress to remove the federal designation and free the interests in Watch Hill of the protections inherent to a federal anchorage area. That would also mean the federal government would no longer be responsible for the upkeep of the area and would not be required to foot the bill for any future dredging projects, for instance.

Kevin Cute, an official with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, cautioned the town at the time, saying deauthorization would “essentially accommodate the people in Watch Hill Cove who have absconded with public property for decades while keeping the public out,” according to minutes from a September 2018 Westerly Planning Board meeting.

The minutes add, “Mr. Cute said from his perspective this is a high crime.”

Jean Gagnier, one of the town councilors at the time, said he preferred to delay a deauthorization vote until the town council took up its harbor management plan.

The town could have used the uncertain future of the moorings, he said, as a way to force concessions from the yacht club on greater public access.

“I always viewed deauthorization to be linked to the harbor management plan, because it gave the council, and it gave the town, the maximum leverage,” Gagnier said in a recent interview.

Gagnier said on another occasion the council voted to send the congressional delegation its written objection to a federal railway plan, but he did not remember the town ever lobbying federal lawmakers to change U.S. law at any other point during his two terms on the town council.

Less than two weeks after CRMC’s Kevin Cute advised the town’s planning board that deauthorization would allow private interests to capitalize on public goods, Westerly’s town council voted to send a letter to Rhode Island’s congressional delegation requesting that lawmakers change federal law to strip Watch Hill Cove of its federal designation and its associated public protections.

The resolution passed the town council in a 4-to-3 vote, formalizing the town’s intent to seek “the assistance of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation in getting Congress to enact legislation deauthorizing the anchorage portion of the Federal Navigation Project at Watch Hill Cove.”

At that meeting, then-Town Council President Edward Morrone, a longtime property owner in Watch Hill, said the vote was the first step “to get us off the block.”

“All of the intricacies and the mechanics of the operation of the harbor management plan will come forth as the project evolves,” Morrone said during the brief debate before the council’s 2018 vote.

In a recent interview, Morrone, who is running again this year to get back on the town council, said deauthorization was a viable way to help resolve a complex issue and he voted for it based on the input he was getting from the town of Westerly’s legal counsel and the CRMC, which eventually backed the move.

“I think we took the best advice we could on a very touchy subject matter, obviously,” he said. “I think that we were open and forthright with regards to the meetings that were held to listen to the concerns of citizens.”

Then-Westerly town councilor William Aiello said recently that he voted for the deauthorization in 2018 because he thought CRMC’s Kevin Cute supported it and that deauthorization would lead to more parking options and better public access to Watch Hill Cove. Aiello is also running for town council again this year. Current Town Council President Sharon Ahern, who voted for the deauthorization as a town councilor in 2019, did not respond to an interview request.

In the end, the Coastal Resources Management Council backed the deauthorization. In an email sent days before the town council vote and recently obtained by The Public’s Radio, CRMC’s Kevin Cute shared the draft resolution with staff from the office of U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and told them “I wish to assure you that CRMC supports the resolution.”

CRMC would not make Cute available for comment. In an interview, CRMC spokesperson Laura Dwyer said, “I can only speculate that Kevin, or whoever, is trying to help the process along” so the town can have “an approved harbor management plan.”

When asked for CRMC’s current position on the deauthorization, Dwyer said only that the agency has not completed its review of the town’s harbor management plan, which the town submitted in 2019. She said the agency doesn’t have the resources at this time to properly review and approve Westerly’s plan.

Deauthorized during the pandemic

Despite Council President Morrone’s urgency to approve the deauthorization in September 2018, the state’s congressional delegation did not immediately act on it.

In 2019, a staff member from Rhode Island U.S. Senator Jack Reed’s office contacted the Westerly town manager and director of development services by email to see if the town approved of language the office intended to use to deauthorize Watch Hill Cove. The new town council, which had taken office in November 2018, voted unanimously to reaffirm the deauthorization request. Reed and Whitehouse then inserted deauthorization language into a federal bill focused on waterways, which was later folded into the 2021 appropriations bill, a massive spending and Covid relief bill, and voted into law. When President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 in December 2020, federal protections vanished.

In a joint statement, senators Reed and Whitehouse said they requested the deauthorization provision be included in legislation after a formal request from the town of Westerly. They said they “urge an open and consultative process with the public, just as every coastal community in Rhode Island must under state and local laws and procedures.”

The Army Corps of Engineers declined several interview requests. Spokesperson Bryan Purtell said in an email the Army Corps reviewed the deauthorization request and okayed it because the town wanted more local control of the cove and deauthorization would relieve the U.S. government of the responsibility of paying to dredge the cove in the future.

‘It seems to be working’

The Watch Hill Yacht Club was an obvious beneficiary of the deauthorization. Today it controls 72 moorings in Watch Hill Cove.

The town now runs an annual permitting process for moorings. The yacht club pays the town for the permits to the moorings and rents them to its members. There are a limited number available for transient boaters passing through the area. And when yacht club members leave for extended periods of time, the club lets others use those spots on a transient basis.

The yacht club's commodore and vice-commodore did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. The yacht club's general manager declined to comment.

Roughly 50 boaters using other moorings prior to deauthorization were allowed to keep them. Ten of those will be phased out over time. The town has established a waitlist for boaters who want permits when the other 40 moorings in Watch Hill Cove become available. The current estimated wait time is three years.

“We have a program in place and it seems to be working,” said Kimberlie Rayner-Russell, Westerly’s assistant harbormaster, who also served on the Harbor Management Commission that helped draw up the town’s new moorings policy.

Rayner-Russell said the new system actually opens up the cove for more public access. The moorings permitted to the yacht club can be used for transient boaters. The waitlist for the other moorings ensures members of the public have a path to access their own mooring permits, even if there is a years-long wait.

Rayner-Russell said she doesn’t understand why the Watch Hill Yacht Club is being singled out for scrutiny, because it’s not the only yacht club in Westerly that has moorings. She said it makes sense that yacht club members and the boaters who kept their moorings in Watch Hill Cove got priority, because they’re the people who have a need for them and the means to use them.

Much of the recreational land and parking around Watch Hill Cove is controlled by the Watch Hill Fire District, a quasi-municipal entity that owns about 65 acres of property, most of it along the shore. The yacht club rents a parking lot along Watch Hill Cove from the fire district. A security guard is stationed there in the summer to block vehicles from entering. It’s hard for an average boater to use a mooring in the cove, even if they have a permit.

When you look at the total picture, Rayner-Russell says, the way the town handled the situation with moorings in Watch Hill Cove is appropriate and fair.

“When something's been going on for 50 years, and [the mooring users in Watch Hill Cove have] not done anything wrong — they've gone through the channels that were in place at that time — why do they get penalized?” Rayner-Russell said. “It doesn't make sense, and it would have made a lot, a lot of work for a lot, a lot of people. We just didn't think that that was going to be in the best interest of our plan.”

Rayner-Russell said, “My point is that it's not this big group of people that are being disserviced by what was decided upon.”

‘We’re an eyesore’

Jason Jarvis begs to differ. He’s a commercial fisherman from Westerly.

On a recent day, he stood in the rain at the state-run Quonochontaug Breachway Boat Launch in Charlestown. It’s one of the spots Jarvis tows his boat to so he can get out to the ocean to fish.

He’s on the waitlist to get a mooring in Watch Hill Cove, which he said could save him hours every day because the area is so close to Block Island Sound. But he’s at spot number 23 on the waitlist, and he says he doesn’t expect a mooring permit until “I'm about 82 years old, if I see it at all.”

He says other fishermen would love a mooring in Watch Hill Cove, but the powers of exclusion in Watch Hill, enabled by town officials willing to appease them, are working against him and other boaters.

“We’re an eyesore,” Jarvis said. “You know, you want to eat the fish, but you don't want to see the commercial fishermen. You know, not in my backyard.”

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org