Fugate Departs R.I.’s Coastal Agency After 34 Years
June 1, 2020
Grover Fugate said goodbye to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) last month at his final meeting as executive director of the Rhode Island agency that achieved many milestones under his three-decade watch.
Fugate’s 34 years of running the coastal bureau will likely lead to opportunities to assist other states looking to emulate Rhode Island’s award-winning coastal management plans. But for now, the North Kingstown resident intends to spend more time with family and enjoy hobbies such as cabinet-making and fly fishing on the Wood River.
In a May 26 farewell letter to CRMC’s governing board, Fugate, the agency’s first and so far only executive director, noted the organization’s growth and accomplishments. He highlighted the special area management plans, better known as SAMPs, the growth of aquaculture, dredging of the Providence Harbor channel, and the opening of more than a mile of public waterfront access along the Urban Coastal Greenway.
In 1986, Fugate was one of two full-time CRMC employees working out of a two-story house on Davis Street in Providence, a structure that has since been demolished to make way for the Department of Administration building across from the Statehouse.
He recalled an office in disarray with much of the work being done with assistance from outside agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was threatening to decertify the coastal program because of complaints about delayed paperwork. With a backlog of more than 3,000 permits, some applications took as long as five years to process.
Enforcement of regulations was scant, and the agency lacked legislative authority and staff to conduct proper policing. The agency only had the power to seek criminal action, something it had yet to exercise.
In-house work and legislative action led to expansion of the agency’s zoning regulation manual, called the Red Book. It was only 90 pages when Fugate took over and it was bereft of specifics on buffers and setbacks. Standards were nonexistent or sparse for barrier beaches, recreational boating, dunes, and public access. Sea-level rise and climate change weren’t even mentioned. The document is now more than 300 pages.
Fugate embraced the SAMPs, eventually calling the eight planning guides the keystone to the agency’s success in developing a water-based zoning program, something that has proven difficult to achieve elsewhere.
“In fact, very few governments in the world have even attempted, let alone implemented, this concept,” Fugate said. “It is the reason the Rhode Island shoreline is as beautiful as it is.”
Other CRMC successes include taking over management of the dumping of dredged materials in open water. Oversight of confined aquatic disposal (CAD) cells opened the way for expanded shipping lanes and fostered major marina expansion throughout the Ocean State. In some instances, the dredging material was used for salt marsh restoration.
“Dredging has been transformed through the council work from something that has been viewed as an evil thing to a valuable tool that can help with economic development as well as environmental restoration,” Fugate said.
He explained how the Block Island offshore wind project was initially envisioned as a 200-300 turbine facility managed by the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources and the University of Rhode Island. The project, he said, would have been “disastrous.” He convinced the partnership to first produce a comprehensive plan for offshore development. That plan led the way for what would become the five-turbine Deepwater Wind demonstration project. The highly regarded Ocean SAMP became the first federally approved ocean plan and it earned the Peter Benchley Ocean Award, among other accolades.
“The Ocean SAMP, with its forward-looking policies and GLD (global location description), is still the most comprehensive planning and management tool in the U.S. for offshore wind,” Fugate said.
The atency’s Shoreline Change (Beach SAMP) addressed climate-change adaptation a year before Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. Fugate commended the planning guide for its online mapping tools and for being the most detailed shoreline study in the nation.
Not everything is going smoothly at the agency, however. While Fugate and the regulatory and administrative team he led have mostly been immune from criticism and praised for innovative programs, enforcement is, at times, confusing, especially for habitual rule-breakers such as scrap-metal yards along the Providence waterfront. And with only two full-time enforcement officers, it’s challenging to police 400 miles of shoreline and open water up to 3 miles offshore.
The all-citizen council has a history of controversial decisions, such as the approval of National Grid’s liquefaction facility, a sheet-pile wall in South Kingstown, and others that have gone against the recommendation of CRMC staff. Save The Bay prefers that CRMC’s professional staff adjudicate applications, rather than political appointees. Some appointees often seem to lack relevant experience and have poor attendance at meetings.
“No matter how good a governing body is there are always bad decisions,” Fugate told ecoRI News. “But the overall good of the council has greatly outweighed anything they have messed up in the past.”
When asked what needs changing at CRMC, Fugate said, “The only thing I would change about the agency is to have more staff.”
CRMC currently has 30 employees. Several of the original staff are still working, such as David Reis and Lisa Turner. Willie Mosunic and David Beutel, head of aquaculture, were also early hires and retired with Fugate. Up to three other long-tenured staff are expecting to retire within the next year.
Fugate holds a degree in natural resource management from the University of Connecticut. His career began as an urban forester for a private company in Connecticut. He continued as a forester for the Department of Forestry for the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. He continued work for the Canadian government while he attained a degree in public administration. Fugate’s work for Canada included planning for offshore oil development, and an environmental protection process for major onshore projects related to offshore development.
Applicants are still being considered for Fugate’s replacement. Jeffrey Willis will serve as acting director until Fugate’s successor is hired. Willis currently serves as deputy director.
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