Opinion

CRMC Study Commission Makes Bold Recommendations

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I want to publicly thank the members of the CRMC Study Commission for their thoughtful, deliberative work reviewing and assessing the Coastal Resource Management Council. This diverse group of professionals included representatives of Save The Bay, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, town administrators, planning professionals, a town council member, the dean of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, a representative from the Rhode Island Builders Association, a member of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, and a member of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association.

They shared their personal expertise and asked insightful questions, sparking meaningful discussions on how CRMC can better serve all Rhode Islanders. These hearings were the first conversations in more than a decade on the critically important and ever-changing role of CRMC.

The mission of CRMC is to “protect, preserve, develop, and, where possible, restore Rhode Island’s coastal resources through comprehensive and long-range planning to produce the maximum benefit to society.” Since it was first organized in 1972 by federal law, its work has changed dramatically, from authority over offshore wind projects to implementing the Act on Climate law to permitting a growing aquaculture industry in salt ponds along our coastline.

CRMC must be a state priority. The CRMC Study Commission took its work seriously, framing short-term and long-term recommendations to make the process and governance of CRMC work better for our residents.

Some of the recommendations include term limits for council members. The commission recommends three 3-year terms, as well as a staggered exit for many current members whose terms have expired. The study commission recommends the governor appoint members who have interest, experience or qualifications in planning, zoning, and environmental issues. We recommend the Senate move quickly to confirm appointees so this council can meet its statutory obligations to the people and our coastline. CRMC is too important to not have enough members for a quorum.

Regarding aquaculture, we recommend that applicants hold a public hearing in the community to explain the scope of the project, answer any questions, and address any concerns before a permit is issued by CRMC. If someone wants to use the public trust, the public must be notified. 

The commission also recommends a full-time attorney to serve the staff and executive director, to mitigate any potential for conflict of interests with a part-time attorney. A full-time hearing officer should be hired to hear both contested permit cases and enforcement cases.

There are several long-term recommendations that would help reorganize and modernize the outdated agency as we prepare for the future. The full report can be found here.

Thank you to the members who embarked on a bold journey of analyzing, assessing, and framing measurable solutions. We have laid a solid foundation for the work. This is not the end of CRMC discussions; it is now the beginning of the work ahead.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-District 74, Jamestown, Middletown), served as chairwoman of the Study Commission to Review Coastal Resource Management Council.

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  1. Rep. Ruggiero should also take a bow for her efforts to review and revamp CRMC. Her leadership and efforts have already resulted in many useful short term fixes, but also provided longer term strategies to better protect the Public Trust. High praise must also be given to members of the public, on behalf of themselves and those in underserved communities, and other stakeholder groups that proactively participated in the Study Group by lending their experience and suggestions, especially local knowledge, to the robust conversation.

    Despite the “end” of the legislative Study Group, additional work is necessary to more fully protect the public’s constitutional rights of access to and use of Public Trust waters. That work includes CRMC publishing designated “hard stop” areas that would prohibit and/or limit aquaculture development where the conflict with the publics access and use is most pronounced. That was one of the critical purposes of CRMC’s Bay Stamp Initiative that seems to have been lost in the wind-down of that effort.

    Future work must also include the appointment/hiring of someone akin to an Ombudsman to represent the interests of the public and other stakeholders before the CRMC Commission. Presently the CRMC Aquaculture Coordinator is tasked with the untenable position of both promoting aquaculture in the coastal waters and salt ponds of RI while at the same time purportedly speaking for those opposed to certain locations that conflict with significant public use. Under current CRMC policy and procedures, the Aquaculture Coordinator has the appearance of or actual bias towards promoting rather than protecting the Public Trust. The current situation must change so the Aquaculture Coordinator only promotes. An ombudsman could be the simple cure. Let’s see how the legislature responds to the Study Groups recommendations and continued input from the public and stakeholders before completing this important conversation.

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