Rhode Island AG Rebukes Another CRMC Decision


Jamestown, R.I., resident Bill Hutchinson watched dredging equipment work in Dumplings Cove in January. The work started a few days after the project was approved by the Coastal Resources Management Council. (Denis Dowling)

The controversial expansion of Champlin’s Marina & Resort on Block Island isn’t the only Coastal Resources Management Council-approved boatyard project that has raised the concern of the Rhode Island attorney general.

Peter Neronha released a five-page letter April 12 criticizing Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) procedure in its handling of a marina dock extension and dredging project in a popular Jamestown waterfront area.

Late last year CRMC executive director Jeffrey Willis issued a disputed final agency order allowing the expansion of the Jamestown Boat Yard in Dumplings Cove. The CRMC board approved the marina’s expansion request, 4-2, at an Oct. 27, 2020 meeting.

In his recent letter to CRMC board chair Jennifer Cervenka, Neronha addresses “both the inadequacies of the Coastal Resources Management Council’s draft decision related to this application and the procedural path that has confused and frustrated the public’s trust in the structured and formal agency decision-making process designed to protect our environment.”

He wrote that the CRMC board should evaluate the decision in light of the requirements established by the Rhode Island Administrative Procedures Act (APA), “and otherwise correct any errors of process, law and fact.”

CRMC’s Dec. 31, 2020 decision was issued as a final agency order, according to Neronha. As such, it triggered a 30-day APA appeal period. But, “[i]t is clear from the transcript of the October 27, 2020 hearing, the decision itself, and the plan of the Council to ratify the December 31, 2020 decision at its meeting on April 13, 2021 that the decision issued on New Year’s Eve of last year was a draft decision and not a final agency order,” the attorney general wrote.

“The process by which regulatory agencies arrive at decisions, and the manner in which they support them, is critical,” Neronha said in a press release that accompanied the letter. “The process must be transparent. The findings of fact underlying an agency decision must be clearly stated in the decision and supported by the record. The failure to do any of these things erodes public trust and confidence, hinders the ability of a court to review agency decisions, and potentially leads to poor decision-making that can irreparably harm Rhode Island’s natural resources.”

He noted that he’s concerned that the action by CRMC that allowed for an expansion of the Jamestown Boat Yard flouts all of these principles.

Stuart Ross, president of the group Protect Conanicut Coastline, submitted a six-page “legalish” brief with the attorney general’s office outlining the group’s concerns with the project. Ross ended up meeting with two attorneys in the attorney general’s office to discuss those concerns.

He called the attorney general’s subsequent CRMC correspondence a “stern letter of rebuke.”

“I hope CRMC will take it seriously and look at how they got to their final decision,” said Ross, who ultimately believes the issue will be decided in court. “Obviously, we’d like CRMC to repeal their decision.”

Project opponents have appealed CRMC’s decision in Rhode Island Superior Court.

Opponents have called CRMC’s decision to approve the expansion of the Jamestown Boat Yard a rush job. Neronha notes in his letter that the narrow dredging window for the applicant — Oct. 15 to Jan. 31 — was closing fast.

“[I]t appears that a draft decision was issued as a final decision, such that the dredging and expansion could move forward expeditiously,” Neronha wrote. “This agency action ignoring the Council-approved procedural path created confusion for the objectors and the public, which may have deprived objectors of their rights to timely prepare for an appeal of a final agency decision, or take any other timely legal action to prevent irreversible actions by the applicant.”

Ross said dredging started a few days after CRMC’s Dec. 31 order was released.

“This marina is full,” he said. “It can’t take anymore boats. There isn’t enough room.”

Neronha requested that the CRMC board “thoroughly evaluate the Draft Decision before ratifying it as a final agency order.”

At its April 13 meeting, the CRMC board voted, 6-0, with member Jerry Sahagian abstaining, because he said he wasn’t present for the Oct. 27 vote, to ratify that the executive director’s late-December written decision accurately reflected the board’s oral decision and late-October vote.

Members Raymond Coia, Ron Gagnon, Donald Gomez, Michael Hudner, Patricia Reynolds, and Cervenka voted in favor of ratification. Member Joy Montanaro was absent.

CRMC legal counsel Anthony DeSisto said he was surprised by the attorney general’s action, since the matter is already on the record and being appealed in Superior Court.


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