Remaking CRMC High On List of Government Reforms for 2024
January 8, 2024
PROVIDENCE — As lawmakers return to their chambers this month, environmental advocates are pushing them to clean up one of the state’s tiny-but-mighty agencies.
The Coastal Resources Management Council has been at the center of a number of controversies across a wide range of issues. The agency manages all of Rhode Island’s coastal resources — that includes more than 400 miles of coastline, everything in Narragansett Bay, and 3 miles out to sea — and oversees all coastal activities from aquaculture farms to dredging, to boat lifts and docks.
But unlike its land-centered counterpart, the Department of Environmental Management, ultimate decision authority doesn’t lie with CRMC’s executive director, Jeff Willis. Willis and other agency staff report to a politically appointed council — chosen by the governor and approved by the Senate — who aren’t required to have expertise in coastal issues. It makes Rhode Island something of an outlier; California is the only other state that runs its coastal management program with a politically appointed council.
It’s a crucial area of government ripe for reform, according to government watchdogs.
“I think the council is viewed by most Rhode Islanders as a sort of relic of the days of ‘I know a guy,’ in the bad old days of things being politically wired a certain way,” Topher Hamblett, interim director of Save The Bay, said in a recent phone interview with ecoRI News.
CRMC board members over the past five years have included a dental hygienist, a labor official, a renewable energy executive, a retired Navy undersea technician, and the CEO of a chain of physical therapy offices. Gov. Dan McKee in the past two years has chosen more qualified appointees, including a land-use attorney and coastal policy professor and former DEM staff attorney.
Critics like Hamblett have no shortage of examples to choose from, as the council has received greater scrutiny in the press over the last few years. In 2021, it was revealed the council had agreed to a secret backroom deal — cutting out the town of New Shoreham and other intervenors — to approve the Champlin’s Marina expansion on Block Island, a deal that was ultimately tossed out by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2022.
In December 2022, the council voted to approve the underground export cable of Revolution Wind, which will travel up Narragansett Bay to its landfall destination near Quonset in North Kingstown, without consulting the General Assembly on the submerged land-lease fee as required by state law. Lawmakers, disgruntled by the actions of the CRMC board, stepped in and set a $2 million fee for a 25-year lease at the end of last year’s legislative session.
The deal with Champlin’s was enough to spur the General Assembly to form a study commission on reforming CRMC, with many of the commission’s final recommendations settling on abolishing or weakening the council’s power over the agency.
Much of the reforms recommended by the study commission made their way into a number of CRMC reform bills last year, which ultimately failed to pass the General Assembly. Hamblett, who is a longtime advocate of CRMC reform, is more hopeful it would happen year, and said Save The Bay’s energies would be focused on the issue.
“The full focus this year is on removing the council from the agency structure,” Hamblett said. “That’s what reform really looks like.”
Under potential legislation expected to be introduced later this month, CRMC would become instead a regular department-level agency, similar to how DEM operates, with an executive director that reports to the governor instead of a council. Also likely to be included in a reform package is the creation of a community advisory board that would talk with agency staff on the back end about coastal issues, with an emphasis on underserved communities.
Abolishing the council would enable the agency to make quicker decisions on permits and other matters and remove a loose-cannon element to important decision-making on offshore wind and climate change. In the past the council has deliberated for years on basic aquaculture permit applications, for example.
It took five years for Matunuck Oyster Bar owner Perry Raso to receive approval for expanding his aquaculture operations in Potter’s Pond, including a number of public hearings and an ad-hoc subcommittee within the council specifically devoted to deliberating the application.
In September the council approved the aquaculture application for Edward Troiano, who originally applied for a permit on a proposed half-acre farm off Nayatt Point in Barrington in 2017, but only after a Superior Court judge ruled the council had failed to consider all the appropriate documents for the application at its original hearing in 2018.
CRMC reform is a growing issue at the state level. Last month The Providence Journal reported that Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha was planning on stepping up his advocacy for CRMC reform.
Despite its wide scope and growing responsibilities in the face of offshore wind deployment and climate change, CRMC as an agency has a comparatively minuscule budget that’s long been neglected by policymakers. Despite the immense amount of work and staff required to vet offshore wind applications, the agency is still staffed at 32 full-time employees and has a $5 million budget, half of which comes from the federal government.
That staff count includes only two members for the agency’s enforcement staff; that means two compliance officers are responsible for 420 miles of jurisdiction to ensure applicants remain true to their permits and other stipulations imposed by the agency.
For Hamblett, CRMC reform ultimately represents a good government issue to ensure the agency stays true to its mission of protecting and managing the state’s coastal resources.
“Regardless of whether or not you own coastal property, Rhode Islanders love Narragansett Bay, they love the coast, they depend on the coast for work, for enjoyment, for solace, for all kinds of things,” Hamblett said. “It’s important to the whole state.”
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