By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The Town Council Monday night voted 4-1 in favor of hiring a URI sound engineer to complete a study of noise on the waterfront and continued to May 13 the first reading on proposed changes to the noise ordinance.
The panel also considered formation of an official Waterfront Quality of Life Board but sent the proposal back for revisions after extended discussions about who was allowed to sit on such a panel and whether or not an official town committee is the best way to deal with ongoing issues between waterfront businesses and nearby residents.
This was the third meeting in a row where the Town Council spent a good chunk of time discussing waterfront issues. Councilors Renu Englehart and Mike Donegan initially raised the topic after hearing from residents unhappy about noise, drunks and trash while campaigning in the harbor last fall. Several residents had their say at a meeting in February and the council discussed significant changes to the noise ordinance.
Waterfront restaurant owners, however, felt blindsided by that first meeting. The Chamber of Commerce had been notified about it in advance but not the individual owners (thought Town Council meeting agendas are posted online and at Town Hall 48 hours in advance). Owners of Blu and Finn’s Harborside got the word out and so many people attended the council meeting March 4 it had to be moved to Swift Community Center. That meeting ended, however, with pledges by both the residents and the restaurant owners to try to resolve their issues without Town Council action.
On Monday, the council got an update on that effort: lawyers representing the town, the restaurant owners and one of the residents met last week and restaurant owners have pledged to do a better job monitoring trash outside their businesses and in front of nearby residences. In addition, they said they would beef up police details on nights when they know they will have particularly large crowds.
“There’s still work to be done but there’s a spirit of cooperation on all sides,” said acting Town Manager Joe Duarte.
“We want to work things out. We want to be good neighbors,” said Mark Finn, owner of Finn’s Harborside, before the meeting.
While all three waterfront restaurants feature outdoor music, Blu and Finn’s tend to host larger, louder bands compared to the live music offerings at Nautika. Venues with live outdoor music are a rarity in Rhode Island, so the restaurants attract patrons from around the state. The real complaints about the noise have focused on the booming bass sound, with its accompanying reverberations.
The council voted 4-1 to hire James Miller, ScD PE, a professor of ocean engineering at URI with experience in “modeling, measurement and mitigation” of noise for a variety of governmental and business entities, to analyze sound at the waterfront, at a cost of $4,650. His proposal and resume can be found here. Councilman Mike Zarrella voted no, saying he wanted to talk to Miller before hiring him.
Jeff Gladstone, lawyer for Blu and Finn’s, said before the vote he wanted the sound engineer to work with the restaurants, not just suggest restrictions, to help with sound dampening if needed. President Mark Schwager said they would work to get Miller to appear before the council soon to talk about the noise study.
The idea of the “quality of life” board ran into problems over who could sit on such a panel. By town charter, only residents can sit on official town boards, but the point of the committee was to include the restaurant owners, who may or may not live in East Greenwich. Councilman Donegan also questioned if such a formal board, which would come under the purview of the state Open Meetings Act, was necessary.
It could be configured as a working group but would a more casual panel have enough staying power, Schwager asked, recalling an earlier group of business owners and residents that had met with the police in the past. That group has not reconvened in years.
The Town Council sent the plan for the board back to the solicitor for review.
On Thursday, Schwager said there were a variety of issues a quality of life board or working group could be looking at, in addition to the perennial tussle between waterfront restaurants and residents, including waterfront rights of ways and the London Street underpass. He said in an area with both businesses and residences, there needs to be a balance.
“We want business development there,” said Schwager. “I think the residents do too. It’s just a matter of trying to reach an accommodation.”
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