Marine

Governor Wants CRMC to Focus On Customer Service

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At the direction of Gov. Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) is beefing up its customer service.

Once the governor approves the final draft, a survey will go out to engineers, consultants, landscape architects, and attorneys to solicit comments on the agency’s performance. The public will be able to offer feedback online.

“We want to know how we are operating as a unit, both administratively as well as the council, on policy perspective,” acting executive director Jeffrey Willis said during a July 28 online CRMC meeting.

Other customer-service enhancements include updating the website so that application fees can be paid online with credit cards and permits for beach vehicles can also be bought online.

When asked why the survey is being offered now and why the governor asked for the changes, Willis said, “This survey will offer the regulated community the chance to offer insights and opportunities for betterment of the agency. We will in turn evaluate those insights and use them to make us better.”

Raimondo wouldn’t say what prompted the push for the survey and changes to customer service, but noted that “our goal is always to provide top-quality customer service to both individuals and businesses. The Coastal Resources Management Council plays an essential role in the management of the state’s coastal resources through permitting, enforcement, and policymaking processes. The survey is one tool that the CRMC will use to assess and improve their customer service procedures and policies.”

CRMC’s model of using a board made up of members who don’t always posses the requisite knowledge to approve coastal zoning applications has been scrutinized since the agency was created in 1971. Council appointments have smacked of political favoritism, and many major decisions have favored development over environmental protection, such as the 2017 approval of a natural-gas liquefaction plant on the Providence waterfront, that abuts a frontline environmental-justice community. Raimondo replaced the council’s pro-environment members months before that vote.

Save The Bay has called for restructuring CRMC so that in-house staff decide applications in place of a politically appointed council. In the final days of the 2019 legislative session, the Senate approved a new study commission charged with reorganizing CRMC. Save The Bay approves of the commission and will serve on its 15-member committee. No meetings have been held.

Here are other decisions made by the council at its July 28 meeting:

Kelp farm denied
A proposed 10-acre seasonal kelp farm off Napatree Point in Westerly encountered a wall of resistance from the CRMC and other state and civic groups.

The project offered by Joseph MacAndrew of Westerly was opposed by the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) because of concern that the submerged gear and some 100 buoys would disrupt commercial and recreational fishing, even though most of the equipment would be in place during the offseason.

Several Westerly-based civic groups worried that the gear would detach and harm protected birds in the conservation areas on shore. The sugar kelp farm, a 1,000 feet from the beach, would also clutter views from Watch Hill, Napatree Beach, and the lighthouse, according to opponents.

MacAndrew previously turned down alternate locations offered by DEM because, he said, the wave energy and currents at those sites was more powerful than at Napatree. He noted that the farm would be operating from Nov. 1 to April 30, after the recreational fishing season ends. Kelp farms, he said, also take carbon out of the ocean and improve water quality.

The project is opposed by University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute, The Watch Hill Conservancy, Napatree Point Conservation Area, Watch Hill Park Fire District, the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, and the Westerly Town Council.

The Coast Guard, however, didn’t object. It liked that the equipment would be marked by lighting, and dubbed the proposal “a worthy project.”

CRMC staff gave an unfavorable opinion. The council rejected the proposal unanimously after a recommendation from DEM’s Ron Gagnon, who cited disruption to sea ducks and other marine birds and the creation of fishing hazards.

In other aquaculture news, the council approved a 2.6-acre expansion of the East Beach Oyster Co. oyster farm in Ninigret Pond in Charlestown. The 6.4-acre oyster farm is leased for 15 years to James Arnoux of Wakefield. The facility’s farming gear sits on the pond’s bottom.

A 3.1-acre expansion was granted to the existing 2.9-acre West Passage Oyster Co. off Rome Point in North Kingstown. The expanded area will grow scallops and hard-shell clams. The oyster cultures are attached to 800 floating cages fixed to lines within the site and typically require scuba gear to harvest.

The oyster and kelp farm is owned by Graham Watson of North Kingstown.

“I love being an oyster farmer,” Watson said. “I want to continue what I’m doing. I just need some more space to accomplish the goal.”

A request for the expansion of the Jonathan Island Oyster Co. in Point Judith was postponed so that the project can be reviewed by the Narragansett Harbor Commission.

Offshore wind
CRMC and offshore wind developer Ørsted are completing applications for three offshore wind proposals. The most imminent is the 15-turbine South Fork Wind, which has an upcoming review by the CRMC Fishermen’s Advisory Board. If all goes as planned, the offshore wind facility will be operating in 2022 within a federal lease area 15 miles east of Block Island.

Interim director Willis reiterated CRMC’s support for the layout of the Vineyard Wind project. In a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), CRMC endorsed a proposal by the Coast Guard that recommends spacing the 100 or so turbines a nautical mile apart in an east-west, north-south pattern.

“A lot of different user groups are asking the same thing of BOEM — to make that a requirement of the Vineyard Wind project,” Willis said.

Among the many wind facility layouts, BOEM is considering a scenario with a series of 4-mile-wide travel lanes, a design that is favored by a coalition of commercial fishermen. The federal agency’s decision regarding an offshore grid will be included in an environmental impact statement expected in November.

The council also approved a request by Ørsted, the owner of the Block Island Wind Farm, to switch a $7.5 million letter of credit from the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. to Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken.

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