A half-decadelong dispute over an oyster and scallop farm in a South Kingstown pond was put to bed Tuesday, with coastal regulators narrowly approving a scaled-down version of the project.
The R.I. Coastal Resource Management Council’s 4-2 vote allows acclaimed restaurateur and oyster farmer Perry Raso to make his foray into the world of scallops with a 2-acre farm in Potter Pond, near his Matunuck Oyster Bar restaurant. Council Chairman Ray Coia and members Don Gomez, Patricia Reynolds and Stephen Izzi voted for it. Members Catherine Robinson Hall and Ron Gagnon voted against it.
The decision comes after more than five years of public meetings, hundreds of written letters and a “float-in” protest staged on the pond by property residents who opposed the aquaculture farm.
“I am just happy the process is over,” Raso said in an interview after the meeting. “It was a very difficult process. I never would have imagined it would go on for so long.”
As for the decision to scale back his proposal, Raso said, “I wish I had the whole project permitted. But I accept the reduction.”
Raso originally pitched a 3-acre oyster and scallop farm in his 2018 application to coastal regulators. He described the project as a way to grow his venture, and in turn, the state’s nascent aquaculture industry.
The project approved Tuesday shaves off nearly 40% of the aquaculture farm size while also banning any floating cages or other equipment – essentially limiting the farm to scallops only, since oysters require floating cages, according to Jeffrey Willis, the CRMC’s executive director.
The revisions seek to strike a compromise between Raso’s original plan and objections from local property owners who say the oyster and scallop beds will make it harder for them to boat, water ski and fish in the cove.
The council’s vote came after an hour of debate in which members weighed whether the changes to Raso’s original plan were significant enough to warrant putting the revised project back out to public hearing. Robinson Hall concluded that another public hearing was justified after peppering Willis and the council’s attorney with questions about the changes and their implications for the environment.
“There is new gear in a new location that wasn’t subject to public notice,” she said. “My opinion, based on what I have heard and the facts presented, is that this is a substantive modification that should go back to public notice.”
Other members disagreed, saying that since the smaller size fell within the original footprint of Raso’s proposal, another public hearing was unnecessary.
“It was originally this big,” Coia, gesturing with his hands to show the size. “And all those people were against it. Now, it’s smaller with less gear. At best, all those people are still going to be against it. There’s no need to put it up to them again.”
A handful of area property owners murmured their dissents throughout the meeting, protesting in raised voices after the vote at the lack of public comment.
Raso’s project has been a source of mounting tension among residents and elected and appointed officials. Their complaints were many: noise, the eyesore of cages, and above all, loss of space to fish, water ski and boat in a popular recreational area.
Raso painted a different picture; of a cove sitting empty as depicted through a series of daily photos he submitted during a monthlong stretch in 2019.
The South Kingstown Waterfront Advisory Commission and the town’s Conservation Commission both objected to the project mostly because of boating safety issues, according to filings with the CRMC. But South Kingstown Harbor Master Michael Stach didn’t share their concerns. The R.I. Marine Fisheries Council ultimately did not issue a recommendation one way or another after a split vote on the application, despite a finding from its Shellfish Advisory Panel that the project would not hurt marine fisheries.
The CRMC itself was divided. The original staff report submitted by David Beutel, the CRMC’s former aquaculture coordinator, recommended approval of the full 3-acre farm. Beutel in his report noted that Raso’s existing 7-acre farm and the new proposal combined would take up roughly 3% of the pond’s area, leaving 97% for remaining recreational activities. He also wrote that many of the written objections to the agency were based on misinformation circulated through a “Save Potter Pond” website and corresponding Facebook page. Additionally, more than half of the 147 written comments received were not from Rhode Island residents, according to Beutel’s report.
Despite his recommendation, a panel of council members tasked with reviewing the application voted in 2021 to deny the proposal entirely, citing the “significant impact” the project will have on such water uses, and the safety problems that would result from forcing these activities to a smaller section of the pond.
Despite that recommendation, the full council instead considered a scaled-down version of the project as proposed by former member Jerry Sahagian in January. At that time the council postponed a decision to let its expert staff review the revisions. A staff report submitted by Willis suggested tweaking the location and orientation of the scallop farm to minimize recreational and safety concerns. Those small revisions were included in the council’s vote.
Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.