McKee Nominates New Members to Coastal Council

Both appointments must be approved by the Senate


PROVIDENCE — With just weeks before the legislative session is expected to end, Gov. Dan McKee announced he’s named two new appointees to the Coastal Resources Management Council, the 10-member council that oversees development and permitting for Rhode Island’s 420 miles of coastline, for Senate approval.

Warwick resident Joseph Russolino is a certified public accountant and a managing partner at his own firm, Russolino & Young LTD. Russolino currently serves as a member of the Warwick Harbor Management Commission, and previously served 22 years on the East Greenwich Planning Board and Zoning Board of Review when he was a longtime resident of that town.

According to biographical information provided by the governor, Russolino has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in business administration from Bryant College. He will fill the CRMC seat formerly occupied by Jerry Sahagian, who quietly resigned his post in January after two decades on the board.

“I recognize the extreme importance of our coastal resources and the Council’s responsibility to preserve and protect those resources while balancing economic considerations with environmental safeguarding,” Russolino wrote in a prepared statement.

The governor this week also nominated Kevin Flynn, another Warwick resident and vice chair of the city’s Planning Board. Until he retired in 2015, Flynn previously worked as associate director of the Rhode Island Division of Planning. According to educational information provided by the governor, he has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a master’s degree in community planning from the University of Rhode Island.

“I think my background in municipal and state government will be useful in the council’s ongoing efforts to properly manage the various development issues of Rhode Island’s coast,” Flynn wrote in a prepared statement.

Flynn was a key vote earlier this year, when the Warwick Planning Board voted to award preliminary approval to a controversial development project along the Pawtuxet River. The project has since been withdrawn. His appointment, if approved by the Senate, would fill a vacant seat on the CRMC board.

If approved, the governor’s nominees will bring the total members of CRMC to eight. The governor’s office confirmed this afternoon that council member Lindsay McGovern, whose eligibility to legally serve on the body was called into question last month by Save The Bay, resigned earlier Thursday.

The council desperately needs bodies to serve; in the past the all-volunteer body has struggled to obtain quorum doing meetings, delaying final permitting decisions on developments up and down Rhode Island’s coastline. Until the governor’s nominees are approved, the council’s total membership is six, the minimum needed to reach quorum and take any vote or action as a body.

Unlike most agencies, such as the state Department of Environmental Management, CRMC is a politically appointed council that oversees final decisions within the agency. Executive director Jeff Willis reports to the council, instead of the governor.

Despite being in charge of the state’s 400-plus miles of coastline, the CRMC is routinely overlooked compared to other agencies, with a meager staff of about 32 full-time positions and a $5 million budget, half of which is provided by the federal government as part of the Coastal Zone Management Program.

By the agency’s own admission, the workload has significantly increased since CRMC was created in 1981. On a day-to-day basis, CRMC handles applications for any and all development within 200 feet inland of any coastline and 3 miles out to sea, a jurisdictional area that encompasses much of the state’s most valuable real estate and all of Narragansett Bay.

At first glance, the permits it approves are fairly highfalutin compared to most Rhode Islanders’ lived experiences and needs: boat lifts, floating docks, seawalls, and new mansion construction are pretty common topics during any council meeting.

But with a bevy of offshore wind projects proposed in federal waters just south of Rhode Island, the agency has become the state’s sole governmental voice in how those projects impact state residents, its fishery resources, and habitat areas. If CRMC doesn’t complete its review of projects by the federally set deadlines, the Bureau of Ocean Management, the federal entity which oversees offshore wind, automatically assumes the state concurs with the project.

Currently, CRMC has three offshore wind projects under its review: Sunrise Wind, South Coast Wind, and New England Wind.

The Revolution Wind project was approved by the council last month after hours of testimony across multiple meetings.

The political nature of the council has provided an extra layer of complications to the staff’s work — the council is free to override or ignore any staff recommendations when considering an application for development. Willis assured lawmakers last month during an agency budget hearing that the vast majority of the time, the council follows staff recommendations.

But the council has amassed a reputation for controversial decisions, even if they are rare. In December, the council voted to approve the export cables for the Revolution Wind project, an offshore wind project that will land and connect to the state’s electrical grid at Quonset in North Kingstown, without a staff recommendation to allow the General Assembly to set the lease fees. The Providence Journal reported in March that General Assembly leadership, Speaker Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said the council had no authority to circumvent the Legislature.

As of this writing, the Senate has not announced dates for the confirmation hearing of the governor’s nominees, but it is expected they will be scheduled next week.


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