Potter Farm parcel slated for aquaculture operations expansion. (Photo Sandor Bodo, The Providence Journal).

RI - Matunuck Oyster Bar oyster farm expansion on hold after CRMC vote

Something unusual happened when the Coastal Resources Management Council met on Tuesday night to vote on Matunuck Oyster Bar owner Perry Raso's controversial request to expand his shellfish-growing operation.

The council neither approved nor denied the application — but instead asked agency staff to review a scaled-down version of Raso's original proposal.

That's notable because the politically appointed council has repeatedly faced criticism for overruling the recommendations of the CRMC's highly respected staff. Unlike full-time staff at the agency, council members are not required to have a background in science or coastal issues, and some lawmakers have argued that the council should be abolished.

On Tuesday, however, the council deferred to the experts.

"We’re not talking about changing the contours of this desk," Catherine Robinson Hall, a newly appointed member, said during Tuesday's meeting. "We’re talking about a marine environment that has a lot of variables that I'm not sure we’re equipped to really assess as a council."

More on the oyster farm expansion:Matunuck Oyster Bar wants to expand its farm. The permit may be denied because of water-skiing

Matunuck Oyster Bar owner scales back proposal

Raso, who has an existing 7-acre oyster farm in South Kingstown's Potter Pond, is seeking an additional 3-acre lease to grow oysters and scallops. He's faced vigorous opposition from waterfront homeowners who say that they don't have a problem with oyster farms but don't think that this is the right spot — a refrain often heard in coastal communities throughout Rhode Island.

More than five years have passed since Raso applied for the additional lease. During that time, the CRMC created an entire Perry Raso Subcommittee, whose members listened to hours upon hours of public testimony. That subcommittee voted unanimously to recommend rejecting the proposal, splitting with CRMC's professional staff reviewer, who said it should be approved.

Ahead of Tuesday's meeting, Raso's attorneys submitted "new evidence" — a proposal to move the farm closer to land, use submerged gear rather than floating gear, and reduce the size of the aquaculture lease by a third, so that it would take up only two acres.

CRMC staff attorney Anthony DeSisto advised the council that the submission did not qualify as newly discovered evidence and appeared to be a settlement proposal, "and therefore is not something that the council should consider or make part of the record at this time."

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