Secret Expansion of Block Island Marina Pushes CRMC Board’s Deficiencies Into Spotlight’s Bright Glare
Senate halts reappointment vote on three members to Rhode Island’s maligned coastal resources council, as calls for its restructuring again build
February 11, 2021
The controversial settlement reached late last year between the Coastal Resources Management Council and a Block Island marina that expanded the facility’s footprint by 1.5 acres has shined a bright light on a board that has long lacked experience and knowledge about coastal matters.
Through a surprise mediated settlement with the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) board in Rhode Island Supreme Court, Champlin’s Realty Associates Inc., the owner of the property from where Champlin’s Marina & Resort operates, was granted approval to build 170 feet into Great Salt Pond, extend its fuel dock 85 feet to a length of 314 feet, build a parallel 314-foot-long dock that connects to the fuel dock with a 156-foot-long dock, and create additional parking spaces.
The marina controversy began in 2003, when Champlin’s applied for a nearly 4-acre expansion. CRMC rejected the application in 2006 and 2011. Champlin’s appealed to Superior Court in 2013. It wasn’t until last February that the court affirmed CRMC’s decision. Champlin’s appealed to the state Supreme Court last summer.
The secret agreement brokered by retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams was sanctioned unanimously Dec. 29 during an executive session of the CRMC board. There is no public record of what occurred during the closed-door deliberation.
Besides grabbing the attention of concerned Block Island residents, the unprecedented move also caught the attention of the Rhode Island attorney general and Save The Bay.
On Feb. 8, Attorney General Peter Neronha filed a motion in Rhode Island Supreme Court to intervene.
“We are concerned that proper procedures are not being followed and we have made that concern known to the court today,” Neronha wrote in the press release announcing his office’s involvement.
The attorney general cited four technical violations in the agreement between Champlin’s and CRMC, known as a memorandum of understanding (MOU): CRMC negotiated outside of jurisdiction; the agency didn’t follow its own regulations and procedures; the MOU doesn’t comply with state law that requires a decision to contain new information that supports the action; and the mediation settlement process didn’t follow the steps CRMC must take when considering a new plan.
A week after testifying at a Feb. 3 Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture hearing against the reappointment of two CRMC board members, Save The Bay issued a press release in support of Neronha’s petition to intervene.
Save The Bay noted that the memorandum of understanding CRMC filed with the Supreme Court was intended to serve as an agency decision, but it failed to allow input from the public and other interested parties.
“The MOU was filed without findings demonstrating that environmental impacts to public trust resources were carefully evaluated — findings relating to competing public trust uses, harbor safety, water quality, erosion and impacts to diversity of plant and animal life,” Kendra Beaver, staff attorney at Save The Bay, said. “The attempted settlement circumvented the public process mandated by law, reversed earlier decisions, excluded parties and the public, and creates a dangerous precedent.”
The attorney general’s concerns about the contentious settlement eventually made their way to the Senate chamber. In a Feb. 10 morning email to Senators, on the same day three CRMC board members were scheduled to go before the full Senate for a vote on their reappointments, Senate president Dominick Ruggerio noted Neronha’s intervention into the Champlin’s case.
Senate leaders quickly canceled the confirmation vote on Gov. Gina Raimondo’s three CRMC board nominees. The governor had originally nominated five current CRMC board members for reappointment, but the candidacies of Joy Montanaro and Jerry Sahagian were pulled prior to the Feb. 3 Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture hearing.
The three other members — Raymond Coia, Donald Gomez, and Jennifer Cervenka — appeared virtually at that hearing. The eight-member committee near-unanimously approved their reappoint.
Coia, who has been on the board for 18 years, and Gomez, who was initially appointed 14 years ago, were unanimously reappointed. Cervenka, the board’s chair since summer 2017, received a single nay vote.
During the hearing, Coia responded to complaints about the CRMC board engaging in private negotiations with Champlin’s by saying the assertions of a backroom deal “are 100 percent inaccurate, wrong, just misstatements.” He explained that he was present for a scheduled CRMC meeting with attorney Anthony DeSisto — who represents the council on a part-time basis and who also serves as solicitor for the towns of Lincoln and Warren — CRMC executive director Jeffrey Willis, Judge Williams, the property owners, and attorneys for Champlin’s.
“Nothing was out of the ordinary there. Nothing was backroom. It was as it’s supposed to be done,” he said.
In 53 pages of submitted testimony for the Feb. 3 Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture hearing regarding the reappointment of CRMC board members, 37 of the 38 correspondences requested that the committee not approve the reappointments, most notably those of Coia and Gomez.
The one correspondence of support came from the Little Compton Town Council president who wrote that Gomez “brings a wealth of experience” to the board, nothing that “[r]aised and living continuously in the town of Little Compton, he knows firsthand the environmental impacts on a community that borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Sakonnet River.”
Five Rhode Island residents also spoke virtually against the reappointments, with most objecting to the candidacies of Coia and Gomez. Save The Bay also spoke against the reappointments of both Coia and Gomez.
Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s director of advocacy and policy, reading from written testimony submitted by the Providence-based organization, asked the committee to consider the nominees in the context of CRMC’s structure.
“It is a structure that undermines the integrity of CRMC’s regulatory program and often fails to protect natural resources the Council was established to protect,” according to the testimony. “The Council is a politically appointed body whose members are not required to have experience or expertise in coastal environmental matters. It acts as a collective body, with no one individual held to account for Council decisions, and no one person accountable to the Governor.”
Last week’s hearing wasn’t the first time Save The Bay has spoken out against how the CRMC board is structured. The expansion of the Champlin’s Marina & Resort facility also wasn’t the only recent boatyard project that came before the CRMC board and proved to be contentious.
Jamestown Boat Yard
To defend their support for a disputed marina expansion project in Jamestown, two CRMC board members decided to disparage swimmers, kayakers, and paddle boarders.
During a late-October online meeting to vote on the proposed expansion of the Jamestown Boat Yard, to accommodate larger boats the marina planned to service, Gomez and Michael Hudner, both Little Compton residents, spoke of their nautical encounters with ultra-small crafts like “little sailboats” in the marine waters where they live. They didn’t paint these experiences in a positive light.
The Little Compton duo lamented the intrusion of recreational water users, saying such activities shouldn’t impinge upon a marina perimeter. They were likely responding to the 27 seasonal and full-time Conanicut Island residents who had testified against the Dumplings Cove project. Opponents spoke about swimming in the narrow, shallow harbor. They expressed concern about more pollution and the impacts of dredging. They said the small cove is becoming too crowded.
Hudner was quick to dismiss their concerns. He seemed to hold the project’s opponents, whom he said were “so fortunate to live on the water,” in contempt. He suggested imposing restrictions on the number of people who can use the water for recreation. He said overcrowding is a self-induced problem. He argued that opposing the expansion and dredging proposal was infringing of the marina’s rights. He fixated on recreational water users “wanting to basically invade the marina perimeter.”
“We have these problems all over the place,” said Hudner, the owner of a cargo shipping company that is headquartered in Bermuda. “I just think we shouldn’t get too objective and deciding what’s too crowded. … There’s big economic engines attached to these marine services, so I think within reason we should encourage it.”
He continued: “These people in small things are all over the place and that’s been an enormous proliferation. So, I think this is an authorized taking in a sense of a right that goes with the marina perimeter that was given to the applicant a long time ago. And if there were objections to it they should have been raised earlier.”
Gomez circled back to his experiences in Little Compton, where he said Jet Skis and kayakers are chasing fish away and causing parking problems in and around Sakonnet Harbor.
“There’s going to be more and more pressure in Jamestown as a result of these small craft,” he said. “They are out there now. People are using them, they go out and party on them, and they run the river.”
The river he was likely referring to is the Sakonnet River, which flows past Little Compton but doesn’t get anywhere near Conanicut Island.
The CRMC board ultimately approved the marina’s expansion request, 4-2, with Cervenka and Patricia Reynolds opposed. Montanaro and Sahagian were absent.
The CRMC board is supposed to consist of 10 members, but Lisette Gomes resigned more than two years ago after taking a municipal judge position and Michelle Collie, the CEO of a chain of physical therapy centers who was appointed in 2017, noted at the beginning of last year that she would not be renewing her term. Both were still listed on the CRMC website as board members when this story was published.
The close vote, with four members missing, to approve the Jamestown Boat Yard’s request — the operation was sold last year to Safe Harbor Marinas, one of the largest owners and operators of marinas in the world — for a dock extension and to dredge highlighted the problem Save The Bay says has been plaguing the agency since it was created 50 years ago: an unpaid citizen board whose members adjudicate consequential coastal development despite, on average, having little to no experience in coastal matters.
In testimony submitted for the Feb. 3 Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture hearing, Jamestown resident Bradford Whitman wrote, “CRMC desperately needs a comprehensive overhaul to bring it into a state of compliance with the law that chartered it in the first place.”
Fellow Conanicut Island resident Stuart Ross also submitted written testimony, which included some recommendations for the committee’s consideration regarding CRMC board appointments. Among his thoughts, he suggested that members only serve a maximum of two terms of three years each — “Several of the present councilors have been on for almost 20 years” — attendance should be required at 90 percent of hearings; and geographic diversity should be a priority.
The most recent CRMC board meeting, on Feb. 9, was delayed for about 10 minutes before a quorum was reached, because Gomez had forgotten about the meeting and was watching Netflix. Hudner and Sahagian were absent.
The recent Champlin’s and Jamestown Boat Yard decisions are hardly the only ones during the past two decades that have stirred controversy or saw the CRMC board ignore staff opinion.
In 2004 the board granted a variance for a 10-home subdivision in Narragansett, even though 97 percent of the lot was wetland and would be filled. The ruling was considered highly unusual and inconsistent with regulations. The property had been acquired for $5,000.
Five years later, also in Narragansett, it granted a variance for riprap and a new house despite staff findings of fact regarding shoreline erosion, risks of flooding, storm damage, and public endangerment. Owners bought the lot on speculation. Neighbors appealed the decision, and Rhode Island Superior Court, in 2016, remanded based on insufficient findings of fact to support the board’s decision.
In 2012 the board granted a variance for a residential boating facility in Quonochontaug Pond despite staff opinion against the application. Staff noted the unique habitat value of the site, including a large span of intertidal flats and nearby freshwater creeks. A staff biologist and the Army Corps of Engineers expressed concern over impacts to an important breeding area for coastal and brackish-water species.
That same year the CRMC board granted a variance for riprap and a home along a highly erosive beach in Narragansett. Staff objected to shoreline hardening and upland fill in an area characterized by rapid erosion and wave energy. Staff said there was significant risk that the beach and associated lateral access could be reduced or eliminated.
In 2016 the board granted a variance to build a seawall along Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown that staff said will not protect nearby businesses and homes and will potentially cause more damage than the current conditions. The board has since approved extending that seawall some 500 feet.
In 2017 the board approved a National Grid liquefied natural gas facility along Providence’s industrial waterfront, upsetting residents of South Providence and Washington Park.
Concerns about rampant growth crowding the shoreline of the Ocean State, and the near-approval of industrial projects such as an oil refinery in Tiverton, led to CRMC’s founding in 1971. It was created to approve or deny proposals for docks, wharves, homes, hotels, and shoreline hardening along Rhode Island’s 420 miles of coastline.
The agency’s mission then as it is now is “to preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, restore the coastal resources of the state for this and succeeding generations through comprehensive and coordinated long-range planning and management designed to produce the maximum benefit for society.”
CRMC processes on average more than 1,000 applications annually. Its area of jurisdiction encompasses 200 feet inland to 3 miles offshore.
Save The Bay has noted that the executive director and the agency’s professional staff are responsible for reviewing these applications and any enforcement actions. The organization’s concern, which is shared by others such as the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), is that contested CRMC cases are heard and decided by political appointees, “most of whom are unqualified but have the authority to overturn determinations made by agency staff with expertise.”
Save The Bay said the deficiencies in CRMC’s structure are exacerbated by the failure of governors, past and present, to appoint hearing officers to determine contested cases, as required by state law. It also noted that, unlike other agencies, CRMC staff isn’t represented by an attorney at hearings, “creating an unfair advantage for applicants and those that violate the coastal program.”
“It is in that void that politically appointed Council members, who are not required to have expertise, are empowered to adjudicate cases,” according to Save The Bay.
As long as this irregular structure remains in place, Save The Bay stressed it’s imperative that governors nominate candidates “that will serve all coastal communities with requisite experience and expertise. New community representatives, including representatives from environmental justice communities, should be appointed to the Council to ensure that the Council represents all Rhode Islanders.”
Separation of powers
About four years ago Save The Bay, CLF, Common Cause Rhode Island, and other organizations began pushing for CRMC board reform. In 2018 the General Assembly approved legislation officially designating the governor as the sole appointer of board appointments. A decade earlier, in 2008, the Rhode Island Supreme Court had ruled that the CRMC board should comply with the separation-of-powers law.
Before the General Assembly and voters approved changes, the governor and the speaker of the House were responsible for appointing members. Up to four state legislators also could serve on the board, which at one time had 16 members.
The Senate, in 2019, passed a resolution establishing a Special Legislative Commission to Study the Effect and Procedures for the Reorganization of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Council. The 15-member commission hasn’t yet met, but resolutions were passed last year and this year to extend its life.
General Assembly legislation and a special commission in name only, however, haven’t eliminated what Save The Bay considers the board’s biggest weakness: non-experts make decisions that should be made by experts.
The current CRMC board, short two members, includes a dental hygienist and a liquor store owner. Here is a brief look at the board’s eight members and when they were first appointed.
Cervenka is the co-founder of a Providence law firm that specializes in environmental law. She was appointed in 2017.
Coia, a Cranston resident, is an attorney and administrator at the New England Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund. The vice chair has been on the board since 2003.
Gomez is a retired Navy undersea warfare technician. He has been on the board since 2007.
Hudner owns the B+H Shipping Group. He has served on the board since 2011.
Montanaro is a dental hygienist who served on the Cranston Zoning Board of Review for 14 years. She has been a board member since 2013.
Reynolds, an East Greenwich resident, is a municipal planner. She was appointed to the board in 2016.
Sahagian is a real-estate agent, developer, and liquor store owner. He was appointed to the board in 2002.
The shorthanded board’s eighth member is the DEM director, who is usually represented at meetings by a surrogate, typically Ron Gagnon, administrator of the agency’s Office of Customer & Technical Assistance.
Half of the current eight CRMC board members represent two municipalities — Little Compton and Cranston. None represent municipalities with large maritime industries such as Newport, South Kingston, or North Kingstown. None represent an environmental-justice community.
“The Rhode Island coast is our state’s greatest asset,” according to Save The Bay. “Given the pressing impacts of climate change and the importance of our coastal resources, Rhode Island should not be the one state that allows a group of 9 appointed persons, not required to have relevant experience and expertise, to decide issues that will affect our coastal resources for decades to come.”