Series of Bills Target State Coastal Regulation Agency


The CRMC board approved a controversial expansion of the Jamestown Boat Yard. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — A dental hygienist, a liquor store owner, and an attorney walk into a conference room … It sounds like the start of a cynical local joke, but for longtime critics of the state’s coastal regulator, it sums up everything wrong with the way Rhode Island structured the agency.

The Coastal Resources Management Council has a wide domain. Since its creation in 1971, the agency has had jurisdiction over all development and environmental preservation along the Ocean State’s coastline and marine waterways, ranging from up to 200 feet inland to 3 miles out to sea — an area that includes much of the ocean between the mainland and Block Island and all of Narragansett Bay.

CRMC is the state’s chief permitter for docks, waterfront homes, offshore wind, and all other proposed projects within its jurisdiction. Its staff has received high praise for its work, from local residents and nonprofits to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But there’s a problem within the agency, and it’s more of a feature than a bug. Overseeing CRMC’s work is a politically appointed, 10-member council that can override staff decisions and recommendations and has been known to go rogue and to make side deals with applicants that have already been denied an agent permit, called an assent.

But despite the council’s oversized role in determining final permitting decisions, its members don’t actually need to have any professional qualifications or expertise in coastal policy, habitats, planning, or any other areas CRMC deals with on a daily basis. Per state law, the only qualifications for council members to be appointed require them to represent specifically defined coastal communities or to fill at-large seats. Council members are all volunteers as well, meaning no one is paid for the work they do on behalf of the state.

Past and present council members have included a dental hygienist, a liquor store owner, labor officials, and the CEO of a chain of physical therapy offices. Recent years have seen more qualified appointees to the council, including a land-use attorney, a former Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management staff attorney and professor, and two officials with deep town planning experience.

Lawmakers have treated the council with increased scrutiny in recent years. This session, lawmakers in both chambers have introduced a host of bills aimed at putting more guardrails on the council or changing the very structure of CRMC. A pair of joint bills (S2928/H7844), introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu, D-Westerly, and Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Middletown, would transform the agency into a regular state department, like DEM, and turn the council into an advisory body only.

“CRMC is tasked with so many issues it didn’t have 50 years ago,” Gu told lawmakers during a Senate Environment and Agriculture hearing Wednesday. “Determining rights of way, aquaculture, offshore wind permitting, long-term planning for climate change. We want people making those decisions to be qualified.”

Similar bills introduced last year failed to pass both chambers of the General Assembly, but this year’s reform bills come with the backing of a powerful ally: Attorney General Peter Neronha, whose office said it helped craft the bills with Gu and Cortvriend, as well as longtime CRMC watcher Save The Bay.

Sarah Rice, deputy chief of the Public Protection Bureau in the attorney general’s office, told lawmakers the real wake-up call for the office was the council’s controversial Champlin’s Marina expansion decision in 2020. The marina had been petitioning CRMC to double the size of its operations in Block Island’s Great Salt Cove since 2003.

CRMC denied the application in 2006, but Champlin appealed to Rhode Island Superior Court, where the decision was reversed. Opponents appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which asked Superior Court and CRMC to review the decision. The agency denied the decision for the second time in 2013, a decision that was later upheld by the Supreme Court after an appeal.

But Champlin’s appealed again in July 2020, only this time a private deal was brokered between CRMC and the applicant for a 1.5-acre build-out, without participation by the town and other intervenors in the case. The agreement was later approved by a vote of the entire CRMC board. The Supreme Court struck the deal down in October 2022, ending the saga for good.

In her testimony to lawmakers, Rice said the problem with the agency wasn’t with individual council members, but rather the structure of the agency as a whole was insufficient to deal with the issues facing CRMC in the 21st century.

“Because the council members are not expected to be professional, it means that they don’t necessarily have the skills and resources to quickly solve matters,” Rice said.

Gu and Cortvriend’s bills also provide for another fix longtime critics of the agency have been asking for: the legislation would require CRMC to hire a dedicated, full-time staff attorney to represent the interests of the agency’s staff in matters before CRMC. In-house legal representation is common with state agencies; DEM, for example, currently employs six attorneys.

While agency staff lack legal representation, the council does not. Since 2016 the council has employed Anthony DeSisto as part-time legal counsel. DeSisto, a frequent fixture at the council’s semi-monthly meetings, provides legal services to the council, represents it during lawsuits, and provides legal advice during its meetings.

In its budget, CRMC lists $194,000 for the purchase of legal services. In testimony submitted to a House Finance subcommittee on Tuesday, Topher Hamblett, executive director of Save The Bay, wrote that the cost of part-time legal counsel should be minimal. According to Hamblett, DEM employs two attorneys — the assistant director and a chief of legal services — for $146,500, plus benefits.

DeSisto, meanwhile, retains other clients and gigs beyond the council, and critics point out that can often lead to conflicts of interest. His most recent financial disclosure form filed with the state Ethics Commission shows that in addition to being a private practice attorney, he also is employed by the towns of Lincoln and Warren as a solicitor. According to the state’s lobbyist tracker, DeSisto and his law firm have been hired this year as a lobbyist for the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Association for Justice.

Gu and Cortvriend’s bills aren’t the only ones hoping to bring some kind of change to CRMC. Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, herself a longtime proponent for coastal agency reform, introduced a pair of bills that would make minor changes to how the council operates. S2304 would require a supermajority of the council, at least three-fifths, to vote to overturn staff recommendations (although split votes at CRMC are as historically rare as split votes in the state Senate). Another bill, S2534, would require specific members of the public to be appointed to the council, including an active licensed fisher, a representative from a developers organization, and a member from Save The Bay.

“It gives me a great deal of joy to see so many legislators involved and willing to reform CRMC,” Sosnowski said.

Two other bills introduced by Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, would codify into state law that the General Assembly is the chief negotiator for any submerged land leases. CRMC found itself in hot water again last year when it approved a deal for a submerged land lease with Revolution Wind without seeking approval from state regulators. Euer’s bills, one introduced at the request of CRMC staff, would eliminate the possibility of a workaround entirely.

The reason for introducing minor bills? Reforming CRMC will take a lot more work than any other state agency. CRMC and other coastal regulatory agencies around the country are part of the national Coastal Zone Management Program run by NOAA. The program empowers states in the program to create management plans for coastal zones. Participating states typically get federal funding for their coastal agencies; for CRMC, about half of its $5 million budget is always made up of federal money.

But participating in the program means any serious changes a state wants to make to its coastal agency structure requires approval from NOAA. Even if Gu and Cortvriend’s bills pass the General Assembly, it’s up to NOAA to approve the changes — a process that could take anywhere from six months to a year.

Meanwhile, minor changes to the council, like Sosownoski’s proposed changes, could be enacted right away.

The CRMC reform bills were held for further study by the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee.


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  1. CRMC needs to be totally transformed into a regular state agency. The appointed board has regularly worked for the rich against the people of RI.

  2. Usually when something is held for further study it is held in the circular file.
    I hope that isn’t the case here.

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