Government

Special House Commission Takes First Steps Toward CRMC Revamp

PROVIDENCE — A special House commission made its first moves toward reorganizing the controversy-ridden Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) on Sept. 15 during the inaugural meeting of its 15-member body.

The commission, which was created last session by legislation (H6252) sponsored by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, will draw together experts on coastal policy, oceanography, aquaculture, development and conservation. In its first meeting, the commission set itself to the task of laying out priorities to improve CRMC and its operation and management procedures. The commission is tasked with issuing its findings and recommendations by April 1, 2022.

“This is not a look back at CRMC decisions in the past, especially since some of those decisions are in litigation,” Ruggiero said. “This is about the future. It’s about how we make this a better-run organization.”

After a unanimous vote, Ruggiero was named the commission’s chair. Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, will serve as vice-chair.

Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, called for the study commission to take a comparative look at other states, including Massachusetts and Maine, and draw lessons from the structure of their coastal regulatory bodies. She said the fine lines between the decision-making processes of CRMC and the federal government needed to better understood.

Taking a hard look at the data, facts and science will be a critical strategy in assessing and reorganizing CRMC for the benefit of coastal communities, according to New Shoreham Town Council member Sven Risom.

Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy at Save The Bay, hoped to see the resources and capacity of CRMC evaluated, along with public access concerns. But organizational structure, he said, “we think needs a very close look.”

CRMC is the lead agency for reviewing shoreline proposals for Rhode Island’s 21 coastal communities, overseeing projects related to offshore wind, dredging, development, marinas, aquaculture and conservation. It was established by state legislation in 1971. Despite years of scrutiny, no significant changes have been made to the commission since then.

Multiyear dramas played out on Block Island and Jamestown have raised concerns about CRMC’s elevation of marina requests over local needs and public recreational use. Controversy over variances granted to coastal development have also plagued the council during the past two decades.

Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, whose district lies away from the coast, noted the “healthy tension” between regulation and the work of state environmental agencies.

“The regulatory agencies that are burdened at times with overseeing these things oftentimes get a bad rap,” he said. “But we are here to see what may be improved, and I’m looking forward to the process.”

Commission members also include: Richard Hittinger, vice-president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association; Jamestown town administrator Jamie Hainsworth; Exeter town planner William DePasquale Jr.; Newport city manager Joe Nicholson Jr.; Rhode Island Builders Association CEO John Marcantonio; Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association president Michael McGiveney; University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography dean Paula Bontempi; Audubon Society of Rhode Island executive director Lawrence Taft; and Westerly town planner Nancy Letendre.

The commission’s second meeting is expected to provide a rundown on the history and work of CRMC. The meeting is scheduled for Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. at Seamen’s Church Institute, 18 Market Square in Newport. The following meeting is expected to address aquaculture and CRMC’s Narragansett Bay Special Area Management Plan and is set for Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. Both meetings will be recorded and televised for the public.

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