A Frank Take

Time to Strip CRMC’s Politically Appointed Council of Its Powers


Decisions about Rhode Island coastal issues shouldn’t be made by politically appointed board members, most of whom have little to no experience in such matters. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

An illegally built seawall in North Kingstown may have finally eroded the legitimacy of Rhode Island’s coastal agency. Frankly, it shouldn’t have taken this long.

Reform advocates have been banging on the Coastal Resource Management Council’s poorly crafted foundation for years. The cracks can no longer be hidden. The recent decision by the policy and procedures subcommittee of CRMC’s politically appointed governing body to recommended exploring changing the regulations governing the shoreline, after the Quidnessett Country Club was discovered to have built a seawall without the required state permits, was hopefully the final straw.

Attorney General Peter Neronha recently expressed his frustration with the 10-person CRMC board.

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

CRMC staff issued a notice of violation to the Quidnessett Country Club last summer. In response, the country club requested a water type classification change that would allow the seawall to remain. (The Army Corps of Engineers issued its own notice of violation to Quidnessett Country Club over its failure to get federal permits for the illegally built riprap.)

The state’s system of coastal oversight was built to fail: an unpaid citizen board whose members adjudicate consequential coastal development despite, on average, having little to no experience in such matters. The result: questionable appointees, head-scratching decisions, and secret negotiations that have plagued the agency since it was created 53 years ago.

The Quidnessett Country Club is accused of having built a 550-foot-long stone revetment along its northeast shoreline to protect its par-5, 526-yard 14th hole without getting state or federal permission. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a notice of violation dated May 7 for the unauthorized “discharge of fill material into waters of the United States.”

The country club has hired Providence-based attorney Jennifer Cervenka, a former CRMC board chair from 2017-2021, to represent the 950 North Quidnessett Road business.

Cervenka has filed a petition asking CRMC to change the classification of waters, where her client irresponsibly built a seawall, from Type 1 conservation waters to Type 2 low-intensity waters, a classification with fewer restrictions and one that allows new revetments to be built.

The time to make such a request was before building the seawall, not after. The country club, which this year is charging $3,741 for an individual membership (plus a $2,000 initiation fee for new members), has a permit history for other construction on its 185-acre property, so it can’t plead ignorance for not asking for permission to build along an eroding shoreline.

Tear down that wall. And CRMC shouldn’t even be considering reclassifying the rising waters lapping at the coastal golf course. If the petition is granted, the country club would be rewarded for flipping the state the bird. It would set an outrageous precedent.

There’s a reason these North Kingstown marine waters were classified as Type 1, which signifies the protection of “areas of natural habitat or scenic value of unique or unusual significance, or areas that have been deemed unsuitable for structures due to their exposure to severe wave action, flooding, and erosion.”

“Without the flexibility afforded for shoreline protection in areas abutting Type 2 Waters, the QCC will certainly lose a critical piece of its 18-hole golf course, and result in devastating losses to both its business and members, as well as thousands of individuals, businesses, and associations across the State that use QCC for professional golf tournaments, charity events, fundraisers, weddings, proms, and countless other engagements,” Cervenka wrote in the April 12 petition.

I, for one, don’t believe Rhode Island will be left reeling because the club’s 14th hole needs to be redesigned or moved. I don’t remember playing golf at the proms and weddings I have attended.

The General Assembly, in 2018, approved legislation officially designating the governor as the sole appointer of board appointments. Before the General Assembly and voters approved changes, the governor and the speaker of the House were responsible for appointing members. Up to four state legislators also could serve on the board.

Unsurprisingly, many appointments have been chosen as political favors, and the agency earned a reputation for favoring developers over environmental protections and public access. Among those who have served on the board include a dental hygienist, a liquor store owner, and the CEO of a chain of physical therapy offices.

Critics of CRMC’s structure have long noted non-experts make decisions that should be made by experts. They have pointed out that the agency’s board has issued decisions that run counter to the staff’s professional recommendations. (CRMC staff has a long record of nationally recognized work and award-winning coastal management plans, including well-regarded Special Area Management Plans.)

At a May 22 press conference at Save The Bay’s Providence headquarters, Neronha, Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s executive director, Sen. Victoria Gu, Rep. Terri Cortvriend, and advocates called for the passage of legislation that would reform CRMC into the Department of Coastal Resources under the executive branch. The legislation is modeled on making CRMC close to its land/freshwater-based environmental counterpart, the Department of Environmental Management.

If passed, the legislation (S2928A/H8148) would replace the current structure of politically appointed board members with a state department that would allow current CRMC staff, which has the necessary expertise on coastal issues, to make decisions in the best interest of Rhode Islanders and the Ocean State’s coastal resources.

“If we as a state are serious about protecting our environment and coastline, then we need — and we deserve — a dedicated agency with the organization and expertise to handle complex permitting and enforcement issues,” Neronha said. “This bill is about modernizing what has become an amateurish, inconsistent approach to protecting one of our state’s most valuable resources. We cannot afford to continue placing crucial environmental decisions in the hands of political appointees who lack the expertise and often get it wrong.”

Gu noted the agency is tasked with managing much more complex issues than it did 50 years ago, such as offshore wind, aquaculture, climate change, and shoreline access.

“An all-volunteer council just isn’t scalable,” she said.

Supporters of CRMC’s current structure — perhaps not necessarily the qualifications, or lack thereof, of some people appointed to the board — note the council format gives the public an opportunity to interact with the body making decisions, whereas at DEM hearings administrators just sit and listen to public comment. Perhaps then DEM should consider incorporating conversation into its proceedings to better engage with a public becoming more concerned about the climate crisis and environmental degradation.

In 2020, two controversial CRMC board decisions to allow for the expansion of the Jamestown Boat Yard and the Champlin’s Marina & Resort on Block Island opened the floodgates of public criticism and generated louder calls for reform. It didn’t help that the Champlin’s decision was made in secret.

The Jamestown Boat Yard and Champlin’s decisions are hardly the only ones during the past two decades that have stirred controversy or saw the CRMC board ignore staff opinion.

In 2004 the board granted a variance for a 10-home subdivision in Narragansett, even though 97% of the lot was wetland and would be filled. The ruling was considered highly unusual and inconsistent with regulations. The property had been acquired for $5,000.

In 2009, also in Narragansett, it granted a variance for riprap and a new house despite staff findings of fact regarding shoreline erosion, risks of flooding, storm damage, and public endangerment. Owners bought the lot on speculation. Neighbors appealed the decision, and Rhode Island Superior Court, in 2016, remanded based on insufficient findings of fact to support the board’s decision.

In 2012 the board granted a variance for a residential boating facility in Quonochontaug Pond despite staff opinion against the application. Staff noted the unique habitat value of the site, including a large span of intertidal flats and nearby freshwater creeks. A staff biologist and the Army Corps of Engineers expressed concern over impacts to an important breeding area for coastal and brackish-water species.

Also in 2012, the CRMC board granted a variance for riprap and a home along a highly erosive beach in Narragansett. Staff objected to shoreline hardening and upland fill in an area characterized by rapid erosion and wave energy. Staff said there was significant risk that the beach and associated lateral access could be reduced or eliminated.

In 2016 the board granted a variance to build a seawall along Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown that staff said will not protect nearby businesses and homes and will potentially cause more damage than the current conditions. The board has since approved extending that seawall some 500 feet.

“Important decisions impacting our coastal resources should not be left in the hands of a council of volunteer political appointees,” Hamblett said. “No one person, nor the council as an entity, is accountable for bad decisions and overriding expert staff recommendations. It is time to get rid of this relic of the bad old days of Rhode Island government.”

Note: CRMC issued a public notice May 21 of a proposed rulemaking change, at the request of the Quidnessett Country Club, regarding the classification of coastal waters. Public comments are due by June 28.

Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.


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  1. if people wonder why a lot of folks don’t vote at all because they think politics is rigged for the wealthy no matter who is in office, RI Democrats too often show why this attidude persists. Democrats dominate the state and yet the CRMC sides with the country club set even when they skirt the law as in this case yet again. Similarly with Morley Field, astronomic payday loan interest rates, banishing RIPTA from Kennedy Plaza, special breaks for Citizens Bank, CVS… landlord code violations, persistent port area pollution, litter control failure… We should expect better

  2. This council has more concern for the moneyed deep pockets than it does for the environment. If you have spent a lot of money building an illegal structure, then their sympathies will lie with you. If you want to start a money-making, venture and have friends in high places, they will be sure to accommodate your wishes. The fact that a former CRMC chairperson is now representing a violator and advocating for her former colleagues to change the rules after the fact is ample evidence of the caliber and mindset of these political appointees. I realize that this is Rhode Island, and the “fix” is always in, but this is ridiculous. Either enforce the laws and regulations that are in place or repeal them all and get rid of the supposed enforcers. Or, better yet, staff this council with citizens who are actually committed to protecting and preserving our waters and shorelines and don’t just have political connections.

  3. Thanks Frank for another very insightful article and for getting the facts straight.
    Dismantling CRMC asap is needed. So what if decision don’t get made with the current CRCM in place. They are bad decisions anyway. Example laying a new fracked gas pipeline under the Sakonnet River!!!
    Let’s get behind (S2928A/H8148) and create a new governing body that works a lot better that the current CRCM.

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