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Westbrook’s John Rie is drawn to the water—and has been drawn into helping manage the town’s waterways to the benefit of all. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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It’s not often these days one hears the term “Renaissance man,” but it might be an apt way to describe John Rie.
An 11-year member of the Westbrook Conservation Commission, twice and current chair of the Harbor Management Commission (HMC), avid sailor, merchant marine, former ski instructor, scientist, and businessman, John earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Wayne State University, then worked in Germany for several years in the 1970s. He had a career in the electronics industry for many years before establishing CBRS, Inc., a “one-man enterprise” that employed bioremediation to clean contaminated properties.
Even John’s heritage is fascinating. His father, Hans Rie, was manager of a hat factory in Vienna in the 1930s when employees urged him to leave, saying they were being asked concerning questions about him. Hans and his wife, Lucie, both Jewish, left for England, which Hans had planned as a temporary stop on the way to America. Lucie, however, decided she preferred to stay, so Hans left for Boston and Lucie Rie remained, pursuing her passion for pottery, a talent for which she attained international acclaim.
Hans was later remarried to the woman who would become John’s mother. She was Catholic, and, as a sort of compromise, John was raised Protestant. In the late 1940s, John and his father traveled to Vienna, his father’s first trip back since the war. They visited the hat factory and the employees hugged Hans and cried, overwhelmed with relief that he had survived.
Skip ahead to 2007, when John and his wife Deb were living in Southington and traveling on a regular basis to Westbrook—where their boat was docked—and decided to look at a Westbrook property.
“Deb decided she fell in love with it,” partly because of an osprey nest behind the house. “And it’s a beautiful spot,” John says. “We bought the property and then we found out we had to knock the house down and start over.”
The property, which backs onto the Patchogue River, is subject to enhanced hurricane resistance requirements.
“If you’re within a certain distance from the coast, you have to have 125 mph construction; everything has to be...triple anchored,” John explains.
He managed the project himself, hiring local contractors to install the plumbing, wiring, and the roof. The house was completed in three months and, once moved in, John decided to retire.
“We had had a boat at Harry’s [Marine Repair],” John says. “And I had mentioned to Harry [Ruppenicker, the owner,] that I was somewhat interested in the HMC.”
About a year later, John and Deb traveled to Ecuador. Upon their return, John learned “I was not only on [the HMC], I was chairing it.”
During the five or six years John chaired the HMC, “[W]e went through dredging of the whole harbor [in the fall of 2012], which was a big deal at the time because there was some question as to whether we could get it done. It’s a federal channel, the feds are supposed to pay for the dredging, and they didn’t have any money. The town wouldn’t pay for it.
“We made a big deal of publicizing...the fact that 20 percent of the town’s economy depends on the marinas,” he says.
The state Bond Commission approved $750,000 in state bonding in mid-2011. This was combined with $685,000 in federal funding from surplus North Cove dredging funds from Old Saybrook. And in 2012, U.S. Representative Joe Courtney obtained an additional $500,000 via a federal earmark, allowing the project to move forward.
Just before the dredging started, “Deb and I took the boat south for the winter,” John remembers. “I came back and found I wasn’t chair of the HMC anymore.”
John refers to this episode jokingly as his excommunication. When four HMC members called him about 2 ½ years ago to ask him to return as chairman, he agreed.
“Since then, the HMC has turned into this wonderful team of people,” John says. “Everybody’s happy. Everybody’s pulling their weight. It’s really a pleasure to chair it because everybody’s taking part, everybody’s doing their share and I don’t have to do all the work. It’s a fantastic group of people. It’s a great team.”
They have their work cut out for them. Fortunately, after a lengthy search, the HMC has found a harbor master. Harry Plaut, who is Old Lyme’s harbor master, is now serving in that position in Westbrook, as well. For now, he’s acting harbor master, as the governor has yet to officially appoint him. Thanks to John’s powers of persuasion, a $3,000 annual stipend is included in the pending Westbrook budget, which will supplement the $750 paid to each harbor master by the state.
Dredging continues to be an issue for Westbrook, particularly given an ongoing lawsuit between the states of Connecticut and New York over the disposal of dredging materials. And Connecticut has imposed additional disposal restrictions.
“The [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers has its own dredge called the Currituck, which is kind of unique,” John explains. “It’s a hopper dredge. In other words, it comes in, dredges the material up, puts it in the [hopper] and then takes it off somewhere else and just opens up the bottom of the dredge and dumps it.
“We figured out how to get the Currituck to...re-dredge the entrance” of the channel every two to three years, John explains. “They did it twice and they were dumping the spoils off of Hammonasset [Beach] and using it as beach replenishment because it’s clean sand.
“Last year the [Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP)] decided it didn’t want that anymore,” he says. “There’s been a year back and forth between the DEEP, the Army Corps...and us...and we finally got a permit to do it again.”
Dredging of Westbrook Harbor will begin on June 6 and continue for nine days, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Currituck will be docked overnight at Pilot’s Point.
Another HMC initiative is the organization and regulation of moorings.
“One of the first things we did when I came back as chair was we actually got some town ordinances changed,” John says.
Moorings in the Patchogue River are no longer owned by boaters.
“Ownership of the mooring and tackle transfers with the mooring permit, which now costs $250 per year,” he says; the fee is put into a special account for the sole purpose of mooring maintenance.
“So those moorings are self-supporting,” John says.
Moorings on the beachfront are a separate issue and the HMC hopes eventually to register all of them.
“The commission had tried to get that started a few times...There was a lot of bad blood. So we started over last year,” he says.
HMC members went out in their boats and counted 111 moorings. They also surveyed the tackle being used, some of which is in poor condition. Every year, tackle breaks and boats end up on the beach. And there’s particular concern about some mushroom anchors, whose stems stick up just below the water at low tide.
“If people don’t know it’s there, somebody’s gonna get killed,” John says.
This year the HMC will offer at least one evening “live registration, where [mooring owners] can come into Town Hall and pick up their registration and go home,” he says.
They are also considering whether and how to require inspections of tackle. Old Lyme, for instance, has a separate mooring inspection form and charges boaters an annual inspection fee.
“We want tackle to be adequate to keep a boat where it’s supposed to be—certain sizes and anchor dimensions, depending on boat size,” John says. “And we want the tackle to be located in such a way that it’s not in somebody’s way and not interfering with navigation...That’s our big goal this year and eventually we’ll start pulling moorings that aren’t registered or aren’t legal.
“This year is going to be more educational,” he explains. “We will eventually start enforcing, but we’re trying to get people...to realize why we’re doing this. It’s a $20 registration fee, which is nothing. That goes into a special fund as well...for the removal of derelict moorings or maintenance of the Patchogue moorings.”
Soon John and Deb will be putting their own boats in the water: Sea Lion, a shiny blue Nordic Tug being fixed up at Harry’s Marine Repair, and another, larger, boat that they moor in Groton. And on any given morning, if he’s not busy with his multiple projects, you just might find John at Harry’s Marine Repair, having coffee in Harry’s workshop.
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