Top 12 Block Island news stories of 2012
Here, in no particular order, are the top stories of note from the past year:
1. Solviken property conserved
The Block Island Conservancy and Block Island Land Trust announced in March that they had begun the process of purchasing the Solviken property on Corn Neck Road.
The property, just north of the Beachead Restaurant, contains a parking lot popular with surfers and a dilapidated building that was formerly used as an inn. Various owners have attempted to develop the land. The most recent applied to the Zoning Board last year to get approval for septic systems to service three four-bedroom homes; that application has been withdrawn.
The property, which is split up into three lots, sold for $1.25 million.
The Land Trust and BIC bought one of the three lots on March 5. Neighboring property owners purchased the northernmost lot and gave the Land Trust and the BIC an easement over it.
The two conservation groups committed to raising around $700,000 to purchase the third lot, which has the Solviken house on it. This purchase closed on November 29.
Stephen Record, BIC president, said in June that the conservancy sent out an initial letter written by Justin Lewis, the campaign chair, seeking donations. Throughout the summer, the BIC hosted various fundraising events, such as cocktail parties, said Record.
2. Hurricane Sandy storms B.I.
High tides, storm surges and heavy winds hammered Block Island during Hurricane Sandy’s day-long assault Monday, October 29, stealing away huge chunks of dune, seriously undermining two coastal roads and damaging seaside businesses, but no one was hurt and of the estimated 100 homes that lost power, almost all had it restored within two days.
“We came out better than at one point I thought we would,” said Town Manager Nancy Dodge Tuesday morning.
Waves washed through Ballard’s in Old Harbor, filling the building with sand and ripping out kitchen fittings. The Town Beach Pavilion’s doors and decks were blown away, the Beachead restaurant’s exterior was a mess of sand and rocks and other downtown buildings will need window and roof repairs. A downtown moped rental company’s fleet was damaged. And the storm wreaked perhaps the most startling damage to Corn Neck Road and Spring Street.
“Corn Neck just amazes me — it’s flat to the beach,” said Town Manager Nancy Dodge.
The storm, with recorded winds of 70 mph and reports of speeds up to 117 mph, littered debris and trees all over the island. Some big trees fell, but none landed on homes. The dock in Old Harbor that the U.S. Army Corps just rebuilt was discovered warped Tuesday morning. Photos showed boats in the harbor floating above the level of the docks, and water levels even with the Old Harbor breakwalls.
School was cancelled Monday and Tuesday and Interstate Navigation cancelled ferries from Sunday afternoon through Tuesday evening, but both students and boats were back on track Wednesday.
Homes suffered flooded basements, but Road Crew and Fire Department workers, many of whom were up late into the night Monday, were up at the crack of dawn Tuesday clearing debris from driveways and pumping out homes.
Most of Rhode Island, including Block Island, was pretty lucky, agreed state officials on Tuesday afternoon after touring Hurricane Sandy damage by air and then ground.
Governor Lincoln Chafee later announced $3 million in immediate emergency funds provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, to go to repairing state infrastructure in most immediate need.
The job included rebuilding a quarter-mile section of Corn Neck Road that was damaged and replacing the rip rap, or huge boulders, that line the road. It also meant rebuilding a cliff-side curve on Spring Street, just below the Spring House Hotel.
Massachusetts company Northern Construction Service LLC, the low bidder at $3.1 million, got the job. The state asked the company to rebuild both roads by the end of December, a task that the company completed on schedule.
3. Stover exits as Med. Ctr. director
In July, the Block Island Health Services board announced the ouster of its executive director, and since then, news about the Block Island Medical Center has dominated the headlines. A budding partnership with a mainland health center dissolved; a leaked consultant's report indicated trouble in the way the board was operating; expenses are up, critical fundraising revenue is down, and the endowment is now forecast to take a 16 percent hit this year; the expired management contract with the town has yet to be re-signed; and a new executive director is to start in the new year.
The saga began at the July 17 BIHS meeting when President Pam Hinthorn distributed a press release announcing the resignation of Monty Stover as executive director of the center, effective that morning. The press release read: “The Board accepted Monty’s resignation and thanked him for his many years of service to the organization.”
Stover started at the center as finance director in 1996 and was promoted to executive director in 2006, filling both roles from then until his ouster this year. He wrote to the Times a couple of weeks after the meeting, explaining that he did not resign voluntarily.
The board appointed interim successors for both positions: Dr. Peter Baute, a member of the Town Council who previously served as a physician and co-medical director at the center, as the center’s executive director; and board treasurer Pete Tweedy as finance director.
Overflow audiences came to Town Council and BIHS meetings demanding an explanation for the well-liked Stover's dismissal. At an August 1 meeting, First Warden Kim Gaffett reminded the audience that personnel issues are usually discussed in closed session. Council member Ken Lacoste didn’t let the matter drop: he motioned and the council voted to request a joint meeting with the BIHS board.
But the BIHS board wanted Stover to first sign a waiver that protected the board from any lawsuits or claims related to discussion of Stover’s dismissal, and Stover would not. The council urged the parties to go into mediation, but to date, they have not.
Back at that August 1 Town Council meeting, there was more surprising news: mainland health center Thundermist had pulled out of a partnership with the Block Island Medical Center.
These combined announcements led to much public outcry, several Town Council and BIHS meetings that drew crowds of more than 50 people, and a petition circulating in August that asked people to withdraw financial support from center until the BIHS board leadership resigns.
On December 7, the BIHS board met at a special meeting to address their bylaw for removing directors, and at the meeting’s end, they passed a motion giving power to remove directors to the organization’s dues-paying membership. The motion will be reviewed by the BIHS attorney before going into effect.
Hinthorn announced on December 17 the selection of a new executive director, Barbara F. Baldwin, who is to take up the post on February 1, 2013.
Hinthorn also said the center has been unable to balance its budget and will ask the town for increased support. The 2013 budget at this stage projects a cash shortfall of just more than $144,000, an unusual situation as boards and organizations usually strive to present a balanced budget.
A cash shortage is the reason for the extraordinary draw on the endowment, to the tune of $211,000.
Simultaneously, the Town Council has been working with BIHS to discuss the terms of renewing a management agreement between the two parties. On most points the two groups have agreed upon, but have had differences of opinions on whether or not the board should follow state Open Meetings Law.
The Town Council met with the BIHS board for a third and lengthy session discussing the terms of their management agreement on Wednesday, December 12. No final agreement was reached, but it appeared the two camps might be moving toward compromise.
4. Election 2012
Block Islanders headed to the polls in November to cast ballots for the Town Council, various local offices such as the School Committee, U.S. President, Senators and Congressmen.
The results came in at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, November 8, when the state finished counting the island’s absentee ballots, and as in the national elections, incumbents prevailed.
About 970 people voted on Block Island, 200 of them by mail and 772 in person at New Shoreham Town Hall Tuesday. That meant 68 percent of the island’s roughly 1,450 registered voters participated in the election.
It was a tense couple of days for candidates for the most hotly contested races, First Warden and Town Council, but preliminary results were borne out by the full results Thursday. New Shoreham First Warden Kim Gaffett will retain her seat, having received 113 votes more than challenger Howell Conant. Gaffett finished with 514 votes and Conant with 401.
Ken Lacoste, who ran unopposed, will take a seat as Second Warden, with 744 votes.
For the first time since 2006, no incumbents ran for Town Council. The three who won spots were Norris Pike, who received 596 votes; Chris Warfel, who had 482 votes, and Sean McGarry, who got 464. The three unsuccessful candidates were Bill McKernan, with 382; Les Slate, with 331; and Terry Mooney, with 300.
In the presidential race, island voters cast 664 ballots for Barack Obama, giving him almost 69 percent of the island vote, and 276 for Mitt Romney. Island voters also got behind Democratic incumbents in state and national races, with 72 percent for U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, 62 percent for U.S. Rep. James Langevin, 77 percent for state Sen. Sue Sosnowski, and 69 percent for state Rep. Donna Walsh.
5. The island’s first recorded tornado
The National Weather Service, using details provided in a Block Island Times article, confirmed that witness and damage reports are true: an EF0 tornado (70 mph) touched down on Friday, August 10.
Witnesses and property owners believed that a strong storm could have included a tornado — or multiple tornados — that touched down on Block Island and wreaked havoc on several island properties across the island.
“On Friday there was a rare system that went up through Long Island and New England,” said Henry Margusity, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com. “There were several supercell thunderstorms, which are very strong storms, that went right out over Block Island. Rotations went up the southeast side of the island.”
Supercell storms, Margusity explained, are storms with rotating winds and prime conditions for a tornado. But whether it was just a strong storm or there really was a small tornado, islanders are reporting unusual tree damage, and even a potential tornado sighting.
“I saw an actual column rotating, with wisps of rain and wind coming off of it,” said John Littlefield, who lives on Mansion Road and was looking east a couple of hundred of yards away towards Jerry’s Point at about 4 p.m. on Friday evening. “I don’t know what else it could have been.”
6. New hi-speed Newport ferry
Rhode Island's two most popular summer destinations will feel a whole lot closer to each other next summer, after Interstate Navigation introduces a new high-speed ferry service that will provide vacationers with a smoother ride, a quicker trip and more convenient travel times between Newport and Block Island.
The service is anticipated to begin running around July 1 of 2013, said Joshua Linda, vice president of the Point Judith-based ferry company. The ride will take about an hour — half of the time it takes now. And with more trips, it’ll be possible for islanders to take a day trip to Newport, and easier for East Bay residents, as well as people from Massachusett's South Shore, to spend a day on-island.
Rides between the two ports will be offered on a brand new addition to the ferry company’s fleet, an aluminum catamaran named the MV Islander, which will completely replace the current traditional ferry service aboard the Nelseco.
But the new service comes with a price. On November 27, Interstate Navigation filed with the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission for permission to make an additional $1.3 million in revenue, money that would come from changes to the ticket pricing structure for its traditional ferry that would do away with discounts for year-round island residents and encourage more vehicle traffic to and from the island.
Interstate's attorney Michael McElroy says that the extra revenue is mostly for "general purposes." However, the extra revenues will, in part, help to pay for the new hi-speed ferry service aboard the MV Islander. Linda estimates in his PUC testimony that Interstate would make "a small profit by the third year of operation." Costs for a one-way trip aboard the Islander are proposed at $25.
7. RIAC sponsors Cape Air
Next summer, Block Island travellers will be able to book a flight online between the island and points national and international.
In August, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $900,000 to the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and its partners Cape Air and the Puerto Rico tourism board for scheduled flights during the summer between Block Island and T.F. Green Airport in Providence, and during the winter, between two islands in Puerto Rico.
The Block Island service will run from May to October. Flights are predicted to take about 28 minutes and cost $60 to $80 each way — the more expensive tickets allow buyers to get a refund. There will be four daily round trips on average.
As well as the federal money, RIAC is providing some $250,000 in matching support, such as waived fees at Green, for the new service. The unusual business project takes advantage of seasonality in the two markets, and of Cape Air’s existing base in the Caribbean. “The uniqueness of this proposal is the consortium with Puerto Rico for the other six months,” said RIAC spokeswoman Patti Goldstein.
“This makes Block Island a destination reachable and accessible to the world,” said Andrew Bonney, Cape Air’s Vice President of Planning. “We are working with the communities to make sure we’re pairing with the right services, hotels… and to increase awareness of the destination.”
RIAC asked New England Airlines, the company that offers scheduled flights between Westerly and Block Island and charter flights to Green, if it would like to partner for the grant application, said representatives last month. But the state wanted baggage agreements with other carriers to already be in place, and gave New England Airlines only a couple of weeks to organize them. The Rhode Island company found that impossible within the time constraints, owner Bill Bendokas said last month, but would have been interested in providing the service if given more time. Bendokas filed a letter of opposition to the RIAC/Cape Air proposal, as did a small Puerto Rican airline.
8. Surf Hotel reopens
The owners of the landmark Surf Hotel on Block Island's Old Harbor waterfront announced in April that, five years after closing the doors and putting the grand Victorian building up for sale, it would reopen. A new management agreement saw fresh blood and new life being pumped into the historic building, which opened July 3.
New managers were Paul and Joan Nedovich of Moodus, Conn., and their daughters Heather Rasemus and Kimberly Afonso. The Nedovich family approached the owners, the Cyr and Nyzio families, in March, according to a joint statement. They were swiftly engaged by the Cyrs to oversee all of the improvements necessary to reopen the hotel and to manage operations for them.
The Cyrs granted an option to purchase the Surf to the Nedovich daughters. Afonso was in charge of preparing the hotel for opening and managed it this summer.
But by November, the agreement had broken down. The managers failed to pay vendors, broke their management agreement and “were removing books and records and other property from the Island,” said the Cyr and Nyzio families.
Holding company ULBE Inc. was granted a temporary restraining order November 14 in Washington County Superior Court and have terminated all agreements with the Nedoviches, Rasemus and Afonso.
Pfarr says the Cyrs will not put the Surf back up for sale, but instead plan to run it once more as a family business, as they did for 50 years before closing the doors in 2007. ULBE President Lorraine Cyr will manage the hotel; other key staff members will retain their jobs, including chef Gerry Sinotte.
9. Deepwater Wind permitting
This year, Deepwater Wind gathered its research and submitted lengthy permit applications to construct a five-turbine, 30-megawatt offshore wind farm located off Block Island’s southern coast. The company says it is on track to establish what may be the first offshore wind farm in the United States, but recently pushed back its completion date to 2015, the same year the long-delayed Cape Wind aims to go online.
The permitting process means reams of research, multiple public hearings, and applications at the local, state and federal levels. The documents are available for the public to read on Deepwater’s website. They represent three years and $7 million of research that explores, among other things, the environment and ecology of the two-mile arc of ocean where the turbines would stand, as well as the seafloor along the 17-mile submarine route of the cable that would link it to the mainland.
In April, Deepwater Wind officially submitted plans for the cable connecting Block Island and the mainland to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
BOEM announced on August 7 that it has found “no competitive interest” in the federal waters where Deepwater plans to install its cable — meaning that, within a 60-day open comment period, the bureau found no other developers that would be interested in a similar project in the proposed area.
The lead state agency for offshore wind farm permitting, the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, has a 60-day Deepwater public comment period from November 15 to January 15, 2013.
The lead federal agency assessing the project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had a 45-day public comment period beginning October 2 to end November 19, but twice extended the deadline, which is now February 10, 2013.
The Town Council voted at its Tuesday, December 18, meeting to send public comments to these two agencies. A 3-2 vote to include a positive statement from the Electric Utilities Task Group ultimately ended with the council taking an official position in support of Deepwater. The council’s public comment will also include four concerns that the council decided the permitting agencies should consider.
By April of this year, three town bodies (the Historic District Commission, the Planning Board and the Zoning Board) approved Deepwater Wind’s application to construct a substation on property owned by the Block Island Power Company. The tract of land is off Ocean Avenue, behind the current BIPCo power station. The transmission station would replace the smaller substation already on the BIPCo property and bring power from the five wind turbines.
In June, the Town Council approved an agreement to allow placement of a fiber optic cable within the submarine power cable that Deepwater Wind is planning to install between here and Narragansett. Deepwater was already planning to install fiber optic cables for their own use, but now has agreed to add extra cables for the use of the town. At each end of the fiber optic cable, it would be the town’s responsibility to negotiate with a telecommunications service provider.
While Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm had previously been predicted to finish by 2014, the company has pushed back its timeline and is now estimating its turbines will be constructed and fully operational by 2015. The delay is partly because of opposition to the project, particularly legal challenges by those on-island and upstate. Wrangling is expected to continue around certain issues such as decommissioning costs and the structure for paying for turbine removal if the turbines should fail ahead of their expected 20-year life.
In August, a Newport resident, Ben Riggs, filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission charging that electricity generated at a wind farm off Block Island’s southern coast would be too expensive, a burden that would unfairly fall on mainland ratepayers. FERC announced in October that it would not pursue the complaint; Riggs now has an option to file suit.
10. Orderly July 4th
It was a safe, sunny and relatively quiet Independence Day on Block Island this year.
An all-out push by local and state police to reign in the partying that overwhelmed Block Island’s emergency services last July Fourth saw groups of uniforms studding Old Harbor while a family-filled crowd enjoyed the parade, steak fry and beaches.
Weather forecasts of thunderstorms that never materialized, plus the fact that the holiday fell mid-week, may have contributed to the quieter scene.
“We got our island back,” said Volunteer Rescue Squad Captain Bryan Wilson. “It was night and day from last year.”
New Shoreham P.D. was backed up by 13 state troopers, paid for in part by the state and in part by an extra $4,500 from the town, said Carlone. “We didn’t know if we were going to get hit with two or three thousand kids,” he said. “We intended to arrest them.”
But the message was out, and the crowd that gathered at the beach this year was closer to 200 strong than 2,000. Carlone and his officers walked the beach all day.
By the end of the day, police had issued seven tickets for disorderly conduct and drinking in public. The rescue squad had responded to fewer than 10 calls, none for alcohol poisoning.
On June 4, the Town Council adopted a law banning alcohol from Block Island beaches — be it in open or closed containers. The town already had a law prohibiting open containers in all public places, including beaches; the council voted to add language making it “unlawful to possess, carry or by any means convey in closed containers of any description alcoholic beverages on all public beaches in the town.”
Last July 4, 2011 the island’s Rescue Squad was overwhelmed with calls, all 27 of them alcohol-related. The average number of calls in a year is roughly 282, squad captain Bryan Wilson said.
The Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or DMAT as they are more commonly known, came ashore the evening before July Fourth to help Block Island emergency staff with medical rescue and assistance during the holiday. They brought equipment to set up a field hospital, a trailer for a beachside first-aid station, and well-trained, compassionate personnel.
11. Champlin's back before CRMC
It’s been nine years since Champlin’s Marina first applied to the state Coastal Resources Management Council to expand its acreage in Block Island’s Great Salt Pond, and although the marina has yet to win a solid victory, its ambitions are not dead.
Another island marina, Payne’s Dock, was given permission for a 80-foot, third-of-an-acre expansion in June 2011, in an application that was first made in 2005 and put on hold while the original Champlin’s application, which asked for 4 acres in 2003, played out. Champlin’s was denied, and the marina, which is owned by Joseph Grillo and is the largest on Block Island, then argued that it had unfairly been treated differently from Payne’s.
The case has pingponged back and forth between the state agency and the courts this year, and in the latest development, Superior Court Judge Kristen Rogers ruled that the case will go back before CRMC — and, this time, Champlin’s will be able to introduce new evidence that wasn’t considered during the Payne’s application and approval process.
The special hearing was called before the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) on November 16.
With an audience of approximately 25 gathered at the Narragansett Town Hall — among them some 15 island residents — CRMC counsel Brian Goldman explained that the remand required consideration of new evidence from Champlin’s, “the details of which must present specifics of each marina for which Champlin’s is allowed to present rebuttal witnesses.” Noting the “burden of proof is on” Robert Goldberg, Champlin’s chief legal counsel, he added his hope that presentation of evidence would finish that day. In the end, although the hearing went on for seven hours, it was continued.
12. Sewer spills twice close GSP
The Great Salt Pond, including the Clam Flats at Andy’s Way and Cormorant Cove, was closed to shellfishing for about a week in August after roughly 5,000 gallons of sewage spilled into the pond. Shellfishing reopened Thursday, August 16, after water quality tests cleared Department of Environmental inspection, confirmed Harbormaster Steve Land.
The leak, caused by electrical/mechanical failure, was found Saturday, August 11, at around 5:40 p.m. after it had been leaking for approximately an hour. It was right near New Harbor restaurants on Ocean Avenue. It probably started, said Sewer Superintendent Ray Boucher, with a power outage that occurred for about 20 minutes around 11 a.m., which in turn blew a fuse in the pump system.
Boucher said the leak was cleaned and stopped within 10 minutes after it was discovered. However, rumors flew that the cleanup was not properly handled, and when the Times asked Town Manager Nancy Dodge about them, she said remaining sewage on the road was washed into the harbor.
In November, a second leak occurred, this time from a cracked sewer pipe deep underground. Ocean Avenue was blocked for more than a week, including Thanksgiving weekend, and the Great Salt Pond was closed to shellfishing. Town and sewer officials said that the leak had been handled as well as it could have been.
Sewer Superintendent Chris Blane (Boucher retired as of Oct. 1) explained that the issue was a leaking force main in Ocean Avenue Pump Station No. 1, which sits just beyond the Poor People’s Pub. The pump station is deep underground and old, installed in the 1970s. To solve this, personnel performed a temporary bypass and installed new piping closer to the surface.
“We are dealing with aging infrastructure,” said Blane. He suggested this event could be a watershed moment for the town — that maybe it’s time to consider having a plan in the capital budget to improve the sewer infrastructure.
Sewer Commission Chair Peter McNerney said repair costs are difficult to estimate, but could be $75,000 or more. He said that some of this money is already in the budget, while the rest will be worked out with the Town Manager and finance department.
Blane said the amount of sewage that spilled from the leak could not be estimated, as there is no meter in that pump station.
Harbormaster Steve Land took water and shellfish samples in early December, and submitted them to the Department of Environmental Management. The first results showed high bacteria levels in shellfish, he said, as well as slightly elevated levels in the water in Harbor Pond only.
The second results came back "fine," he said, and as of December 17, the Great Salt Pond was "open except for south of the Beach Avenue bridge.” As of December 27, this area was still closed, said Land.