‘This is About Good Government’: Advocates, AG Call on Legislature to Reform R.I.’s Coastal Agency


Advocates gathered at Save The Bay's Providence campus to push Coastal Resources Management Council reform. (Rob Smith/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — “Bad decisions,” “indefensible,” “unqualified,” and “disaster” were just a few of the critiques shared Wednesday by elected officials to describe Rhode Island’s coastal regulatory agency.

Advocates, including Attorney General Peter Neronha, Save The Bay, and a small coterie of lawmakers and environmental groups, gathered on Save The Bay’s Providence campus to call on legislative leaders to pass legislation to reform the Coastal Resources Management Council.

Their ire was almost entirely aimed at the part-time, volunteer board members who aren’t actually required to have expertise in coastal policy or planning before sitting on the CRMC’s executive council, which wields all final decision-making power with the agency, including the ability to override staff at will.

The 10-member council, the only body of its kind among Rhode Island’s state agencies, has accumulated a lengthy rap sheet of controversial decisions that has angered lawmakers, the general public, and at times, state courts. A secret deal in 2020 to approve the expansion of Champlin’s Marina on Block Island was ultimately reversed by the Rhode Island Supreme Court; in 2022, the council went around the General Assembly to sign off on a submerged land lease for Revolution Wind; and agency permitting applications, such as aquaculture projects, take too long to process, with unpredictable results.

In remarks to the press, Neronha characterized the agency’s Champlin’s decision as “a disaster” for the state.

“The amount of hours my office spends on undoing the council’s bad decisions is too many,” Neronha said.

The most recent complaint? The policy and procedures subcommittee of CRMC’s governing body last week elected to begin exploring changing the regulations governing the shoreline, after the Quidnessett Country Club in North Kingstown was discovered to have illegally constructed a seawall last year without any permits. The agency issued a notice of violation last summer.

CRMC executive director Jeff Willis told the subcommittee during a May 14 meeting that agency staff had been in contact with the country club about resolving the issue, and the club’s suggestion was to change the water type — similar to changing the zoning for a property on land — to allow the seawall to stand.

“The answer is not to change the rules after the fact,” Neronha said. “That’s what’s wrong with the way this agency works.”

Now the federal government is getting involved. The Army Corps of Engineers confirmed Wednesday to ecoRI News that it had issued its own notice of violation to Quidnessett Country Club over its failure to get federal permits for the seawall constructed last year.

Topher Hamblett, executive director for Save The Bay and a longtime advocate for abolishing CRMC’s governing body, said council members were accountable to no one — even when they broke the law. Hamblett noted that, of the council members that were present when they made a backroom deal with Champlin’s Marina, four of them are still serving, having faced no consequences for the deal.

“This is about good government in the Ocean State,” Hamblett said. “The council really needs to go.”

Hamblett emphasized reform efforts in the Legislature had received no public opposition during bill hearings, and that there would likely be no additional cost, and possibly savings, from reforming the agency.

Reform efforts this year include hiring an in-house staff attorney to represent the staff in legal matters. Council and staff have both been represented by a private firm, Anthony DeSisto Law Associates LLC, since August 2016. The agency, according to fiscal 2025 budget documents, spends about $194,000 annually on legal services, about a tenth of the money it receives from state coffers.

The private law firm is often at the center of conflicts of interest. Anthony DeSisto, the nameplate partner for the firm, serves as town solicitor for Lincoln and Warren, and is registered as a paid lobbyist in the General Assembly. Critics of the agency have long noted it would be unusual for any attorney working for the state to continue to represent other clients with possible conflicts.

Lawmakers are considering a pair of bills (S2928/H8148) introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu, D-Westerly, and Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, that would abolish the executive council and give much of its powers to the executive director. It’s far from a radical move; the legislation is modeled on making CRMC close to its land-based environmental counterpart, the Department of Environmental Management. It would even get a name change, to the Department of Coastal Resources.

In remarks, Gu said the agency’s structure and its funding — CRMC has a budget of $5 million annually, half of it from state revenues, the other half from the federal government — had not kept up with the demands facing Rhode Island’s coasts in the face of climate change, sea level rise, and aquaculture development.

Two groups typically opposed to each other, aquaculturists and commercial and recreational anglers, are united on this one issue, Gu said.

“Who is this system working for?” she asked. “I don’t think it’s working for Rhode Islanders.”

The reform bills have been held in committee for further study.

In a statement to ecoRI News, Speaker Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, said he supported CRMC reform, but not a repeal. “The House legislation is under consideration, but it was introduced late in the session, and there is a likely significant cost attached to it,” he said. “For that reason, we have requested a fiscal note from the Administration and are waiting receipt.”

Meanwhile in the Senate, President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, was the first co-sponsor on Gu’s reform bill. Ruggerio’s communications director, Greg Pare, told ecoRI News that Ruggerio “believes it is an important issue that needs to be thoroughly examined through our public committee hearing process.”

“At this point, the bill remains under review by the Judiciary committee, and we are seeking additional information including potential cost estimates,” Pare added.

A spokesperson for Gov. Dan McKee did not return a request for comment.


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