CRMC subcommittee recommends denial of proposed South Kingstown oyster farm expansion

Updated at 5:20 p.m.

A SUBCOMMITTEE of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council on Monday recommended to deny the application from Matunuck Oyster Bar owner Perry Raso, pictured above, to lease a second area for farming oysters and scallops in Potter Pond. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MIKE SKORSKI

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – A drawn-out fight between South Kingstown residents and a prominent business owner seeking to expand his oyster farm may be nearing a resolution.

A subcommittee of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council on Monday voted unanimously to recommend denying the application for a three-acre oyster and scallop farm in Potter Pond in South Kingstown. The 2017 application, submitted by Perry Raso, owner of the Matunuck Oyster Bar and Matunuck Oyster Farm, sought to expand his existing business, which already has a seven-acre oyster farm lease in a separate area of the pond.

The proposed three-acre farm has been a source of escalating tensions between Raso and local community members, whose complaints include that the project will hurt popular recreational activities in the pond such as water skiing, boating and fishing. 

In the vote on Monday, committee members cited the “significant impact” the project will have on such water uses, and the safety problems it poses by forcing these activities to a more concentrated area, as reason for their recommendation to deny the project. The recommendation will go to the full council for a final decision, with the opportunity for a 30-day appeal process.

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During the meeting, subcommittee members weighed how best to balance the seemingly competing interests of local property owners and recreational pond users with Raso. Vincent Murray, a Matunuck native and former South Kingstown planning director, characterized residents’ descriptions of how they use the pond as “dramatic.”

A June 2020 report submitted by David Beutel, the CRMC’s former aquaculture coordinator, also noted 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.

The 2020 report recommended approval of the farm, noting that the existing seven-acre farm and the new proposal combined would take up roughly 3% of the pond’s area, leaving 97% for remaining recreational activities.

However, the CRMC committee noted that the limits on certain activities expand beyond the scope of the farm itself. A South Kingstown ordinance requires a 200-foot buffer between water skiers and the shoreline as well as the perimeter of an oyster farm. Pushing water skiers and their boats into the center of the pond, closer to other boaters, swimmers and fishermen, could create safety issues. While the project met a majority of the other criteria for approval, such as its impact on coastal erosion, plant and wildlife, scenery and water quality, concerns over the “significant impact” on water activities proved “fatal” to the application, according to Raymond Coia, council vice chairman.

Raso in an emailed response on Monday afternoon said he “respectfully” disagrees with the subcommittee’s recommendation because it was only based on safety concerns for water sports. Raso also pointed to previous comments made by South Kingstown Harbor Master Michael Stach, who said the aquaculture farm did not pose safety hazards.

Other recommending bodies, including the South Kingstown Waterfront Advisory Commission and the town’s Conservation Commission, have objected to the project, according to filings. The Rhode Island 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 subcommittee was formed in 2020, and includes four council members as well as Murray. The group held seven virtual public meetings on the project between November and January which included public comment and testimony from attorneys and environmental experts on both sides of the issue. The full council is expected to take up the matter in April.

(SUBS 9th paragraph to include response from Raso.)

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t really understand the “summer people” argument on water sports. The “Save Potters Pond” bs was signed by so many out of staters-who may spend money in Matunuck in the Summer but don’t live here. If the combined two areas are a total of only 3% of the pond, this seems like Perry’s being railroaded. I personally think he does responsible oyster farming, and that his restaurant brings jobs and dollars to South Kingstown-while still allowing all kinds of activity on the pond. This feels personal, like some rich people who own property around the pond are irritated and looking for any excuse to shut this down.

  2. i m on the shellfish advisory panel and recommended that this application be approved. i looked at the size of the pond in which the farm is proposed vs the size of the requested lease and did not think that it would have removed unreasonable portion of the pond from recreation. granted there is apparently a lot of water skiing, sailing, kayaking and fly fishing in the cove but the waters of the state are a public resource and as such all entities have rights. which brings me to my consistent bitch about aquaculture leases. the leases are considered on a instant basis. the crmc is supposed to be developing a Bay special area management plan which supposedly is to include addressing aquaculture. due to conflict of uses, this application being good example and the lack of crmc guidance on the issue, leasing has become a land grab like it is the wild west. if the state developed a mapping system indicating where aquaculture would be appropriate through a public review process where all stake holders were heard, a lot of the conflict would disappear and both recreational users and aquaculturist lives would be a lot easier. additionally the public notice process for aquaculture leases is terrible. if someone wants to construct an addition on their house which encroaches on their property setback, all the neighbors with 200′ have to be notified by registered mail. an aquaculture lease is advertised (only in the local newspaper – i believe). granted it is published on a web but who sits around browsing state web sites in their spare time. in some cases leases are being granted which usurp shore front property owners rights to install docks or moorings. in other cases leases with floating cages are being granted in Type I waters where the Red Book indicates that the visual aesthetics of the water is an important factor which is to be protected. so who determines that?
    a SAMP plan is needed for Bay aquaculture. one already exists for the coastal ponds and the approval process or lack there of is much smoother. i m not sure how this is going to end but it’s sin that the perry rasos of the world who are creating a national reputation (and sales) for RI oysters have to struggle to advance their businesses.