Initial Public Comment Shows Support for CRMC Changes
January 21, 2022
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island residents believe reform is needed for the beleaguered Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), according to public comment solicited by the House study commission on the agency. Members of the public recently submitted more than a dozen oral comments and an avalanche of some 100 correspondences to the study commission, all in support of doing something to reorganize CRMC.
“A family in Woonsocket has just as much interest in state waters as any waterfront home or yacht owner,” Matt Behan, a Westerly resident and owner of an eponymous oyster farm, said during a Jan. 19 meeting of the special House commission.
The public comments also took aim at the agency’s leadership. Unlike its counterpart, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, CRMC isn’t technically a cabinet level-agency. All final decisions and application approvals flow through a 10-member voting council, most of them political appointees decided by the governor.
The council has landed CRMC in hot water more than once and has blazed a controversial history for itself by overriding recommendations from agency staff, even though few council appointees have a background in coastal management.
Most recently, the council allowed Champlin’s Marina on Block Island to expand 170 feet into Great Salt Pond, a decision that was made behind closed doors and was later blocked by the state’s Supreme Court. Litigation over the affair is still ongoing.
“It’s astonishing how new council members can take a whole term to learn the issues CRMC handles,” said Michael Woods of the New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “It hampers the ability [for council members] to have informed votes on issues.”
Local resident and Uprise RI founder Steve Ahlquist told the commission members they needed to consider social justice when reforming the agency.
“What’s not been brought up by anyone is CRMC’s woeful history of environmental racism,” he said. “Environmental justice needs to be centered in its mission, and I’ve not heard it once from this commission.”
Many CRMC board members remain on the council even though their terms have long since expired. Gov. Dan McKee has only appointed one new member of the council in his time as governor, Lindsay McGovern, who hasn’t attended a meeting in months.
Members of the public also took time to praise CRMC staff, noting its work and regulations were the envy of other states.
“I consider CRMC the iron fist of the coast, and the fact that it is an individual entity is great,” said Cameron Ennis. “There are certain elements that work at CRMC … the aquaculture permitting process is renowned.”
Comments from the public crystallized around reforming or abolishing the council, increasing the agency’s existing staff and funding, hiring a dedicated attorney, and appointing neutral arbiters for more controversial decisions.
The agency operates on a $5 million annual budget, with half that funding coming from state coffers and the other half coming from the federal government. CRMC hired a new enforcement officer earlier this year, and now three officers are responsible for overseeing hundreds of projects along more than 400 miles of the Ocean State’s coastline.
The study commission, chaired by Rep. Deborah Ruggerio, D-Jamestown, has been meeting on average once a month since September with an eye on issuing recommendations to the General Assembly this year. While the commission has not issued any official statements, signs are pointing toward some kind of agency overhaul.
Ruggerio and Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, who also serves on the commission, wrote a recent joint opinion piece calling for CRMC reform to be an issue in the 2022 governor’s race and reaffirming the House’s commitment to reform.
“CRMC needs to be a state priority,” they wrote. “The work of the agency has changed dramatically during the past decade and certainly since it was first organized under federal law in 1975.
The schedule for future meetings of the study commission is unclear, but Ruggerio estimates it will issue recommendations to the Legislature sometime in the spring.
Join the DiscussionView Comments
Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.
Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.