CRMC Board Has Long Been Subject of Debate

Current state law dictates little in the way of technical qualifications for members that rule on coastal issues


The Coastal Resources Management Council board and staff manage 420 miles of Rhode Island coastline. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The state’s coastal regulator landed in hot water earlier this year when it was discovered the board that oversees the Coastal Resources Management Council overruled its own staff and chose to circumvent the General Assembly.

Back in December, CRMC approved export cables for the Revolution Wind offshore project, but without a crucial stipulation added by agency staff: that the General Assembly sign off on the submerged lands to be leased by the offshore wind developers, Ørsted and Eversource.

Legislative leaders deemed the board had overstepped its bounds in bypassing the General Assembly, and lawmakers authorized a $2 million, 25-year submerged lands lease before the end of the session in June.

It’s not the first time the board has ignored written recommendations from staff at the agency, which has authority over the Ocean State’s 400-plus miles of coastline, from 200 feet landward to 3 miles out to sea, an area which encompasses all of Narragansett Bay.

An ecoRI News analysis of publicly available documents, including meeting minutes and staff reports, found 16 instances over the past 20 years when the politically appointed 10-member board ignored or overruled recommendations from CRMC staff on an application under consideration.

The bulk of the instances were applications for new home construction or additions onto existing houses or boating facilities. Three of them — two from a full board vote, one from a subcommittee vote — involved denials over aquaculture leases.

Most recently, the Perry Raso Subcommittee, formed in 2018 and named for the owner of the Matunuck Oyster Bar who wanted to expand his aquaculture operation, voted to recommend the agency deny the application, despite a staff report detailing reasons it should be approved.

One result of the board’s process is delays in processing and approving applications for agency permits, much to the frustration of developers and residents alike. CRMC staff accepted Raso’s application for his expansion on Jan. 2, 2018. The subcommittee voted to deny it in November 2021. Raso didn’t receive final approval for his Potter Pond aquaculture farm expansion until this past June, five and a half years after originally filing his application with CRMC.

The board’s decisions to override staff have not always been unanimous among its members. Seven of the 17 instances involved split votes, with one resulting in denial solely because the board was evenly split on approving the application.

The CRMC board also reached an agreement with Champlin’s Marina, behind closed doors and without including the town of New Shoreham and its abutters, after repeated CRMC agency denials from staff and a council vote. The settlement was overturned by the state Supreme Court, which lambasted the board over its decision-making.

In a process unusual to state agencies, CRMC doesn’t allow its executive director to have final say over most decisions, whether it’s contested applications or personnel issues. Instead, that power is given to the board. Also unusual compared to other state agencies, for a long time the CRMC executive director reported to and signed an employment contract with the board and not, as many other agency heads do, with the governor of Rhode Island.

Current state law dictates little in the way of technical qualifications for board members. They are not required to have a background or expertise in coastal science, marine ecosystems, or even just plain old land use. Instead, six of its members must represent specific coastal communities, three are considered at-large (so anyone can serve), and the 10th member is an ex-officio, the state Department of Environmental Management director or his designee.

(State lawmakers used to serve on the board until 2004, when they passed a separation of powers amendment to the state constitution that barred sitting legislators from serving in another branch of government. Boards like that of the CRMC were a prime reason for its passage.)

As a result, for much of its history, getting appointed to CRMC’s overseeing body is less about expertise and more about who you know. Past members’ backgrounds have included the CEO of a chain of physical therapist offices, a renewable energy executive, and a dental hygienist.

It has caused a lot of board decisions to come under renewed scrutiny. Longtime critics have alleged the board has a chilling effect on CRMC staff, who write recommendations knowing the board may ignore them.

It’s not unusual for the board to send an application back to the staff after it has modified a proposal or struck a compromise in a meeting. In June, board members debated for nearly an hour about whether they had the authority to approve the final Perry Raso oyster farm expansion after the project had been modified by staff at a board member’s request during a previous meeting in January.

“No [board] member is accountable for its decisions, nor has any member answered to the people of Rhode Island for its actions,” wrote Jonathan Stone, then-director of Save The Bay, in an opinion piece last year after the Champlin’s Marina decision.

The road to CRMC reform has been long and slow. A 2022 report from the Legislature’s own study commission recommended putting more guardrails and stricter qualifications over who was allowed to serve on the body, in addition to three-year term limits.

An omnibus bill sponsored by Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-Narragansett, would have transformed the agency into a regular state department, and the board would be stripped of its executive powers to take on more of a citizen’s advisory role. A companion bill was introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu, D-Westerly, in the Senate.

“It’s time to move past the politically well-connected making decisions about our coastal resources,” Tanzi told lawmakers in the House State Government and Elections Committee in March.

CRMC reform bills ultimately stalled in the Legislature this past session. Advocates indicated it was late in the year for the Senate to take up the omnibus legislation by the time the chamber took it up, but have pledged to reintroduce it next session.


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  1. Time to end the good old boy network of appointments to this board and others.
    Members of this board should be required to meet minimum standards for knowledge of coastal resource management.
    Time to end who you know as a requirement for appointment and make it what you know is the only requirement for appointment to the board.

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