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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

CRMC Gives New Life to Proposal to Expand Aquaculture Farm on Potter Pond.

Also hires new deputy director after political delays

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

A proposal to add 3 acres of aquaculture farms to South Kingstown’s Potter Pond gained a new lease on life this week when coastal regulators voted to send a modified version of the project back to agency staff for further study.

The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), which regulates aquaculture and other developments found along Rhode Island’s coastline and state waters, was expected to make a final decision on the proposal Jan. 24, but council members instead opted to seek a compromise solution for the project by a 6-2 vote.

Jerry Sahagian, a prominent developer who has been on the council since the 2000s, proposed reducing the size of the project by 39%, trimming the farm’s footprint in Segar Cove from 130,000 to 80,000 square feet, or just under 2 acres in size. Sahagian also suggested replacing the floating gear for the farm with a different kind of aquaculture gear.

Sahagian noted agency staff recommended approval of the project at 3 acres in size, but acknowledged the concerns of community members who use the cove for recreation.

“This will add an additional 50 feet of buffer which I thought would address the safety issues for water skiers,” he said.

But not all council members agreed the panel had the power to modify the application as was proposed. Catherine Robinson Hall, a former Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management lawyer and coastal policies professor who was appointed to the council last year, questioned whether the panel was being transparent and fulfilling public notice requirements by making a major last-minute change to the project.

“It’s not a flat landscape, we’re not changing the contours of this desk,” said Robinson Hall. “We’re talking about changing the seabed, a very complex landscape. It’s not something we’re qualified to do as a council, it’s something only [agency] staff can do.”

It’s the latest development in a five-year tug-of-war between applicant Perry Raso, who owns Matunuck Oyster Bar and is seeking to expand his Rhode Island aquaculture operations, and local residents concerned about the impact the project may have on summer activities.

CRMC formed a special four-person subcommittee to study the project, the Perry Raso Subcommittee, which, after dozens of hours of public hearings, ultimately recommended the council reject the project in a November 2021 meeting. Subcommittee members expressed repeated concerns over the safety from conflicted uses in the cove.

The proposed farm would have three sections of 12 rows of scallop gear, with another 12 rows devoted to oyster farming. Raso already has aquaculture farms elsewhere in Potter Pond, and approval of the new farm would bring his total acres to 9.9, across 3% of the surface area of the pond. CRMC regulations limit aquaculture development from occupying more than 5% of the surface area of any waterbody.

CRMC staff reportedly received 149 objections regarding the project, noting that 79 letters came from out-of-state residents. The objections ranged from noise to recreational fishing impacts, to visual impacts to beach access.

“Segar Cove in Potter Pond has recreational activities. Mr. Raso has observed that they are limited,” wrote CRMC aquaculture coordinator David Beutel in his staff recommendation. “Any aquaculture project in Segar Cove will affect the recreational activities. Some of these activities may occur on the site and others adjacent to the site. Will those activities be prohibited in Potter Pond if this site is approved? No, those activities will still occur in Potter Pond.”

Two members of the Perry Raso Subcommittee, Donald Gomez and Patricia Reynolds, voted to delay the council’s final decision and send the application back to CRMC staff for additional study and a future report.

Both council members indicated they were against the project based on the safety concerns unearthed during the subcommittee’s hearings.

Gomez said the council needed more information from agency staff on any proposed changes to the project’s size or gear.

“It’s still a slippery slope,” Gomez said. “If there’s an exchange [of gear], staff need to look at it.”

CRMC Gets New Deputy Director After Repeated Delays

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

After months of delays, the state Coastal Resources Management Council finally has a new deputy director.

Laura Miguel was picked earlier this month to replace James Boyd, who retired last June after 22 years, for the No. 2 spot at the agency. Miguel has more than 30 years of experience at CRMC, and previously led its enforcement division.

The Rhode Island Department of Administration (DOA) had placed a hold on all personnel action requests from CRMC last August, according to records obtained by ecoRI News last fall. The hold included three other unfilled jobs within the agency: a new coastal policy analyst; a marine infrastructure coordinator; and a hearing officer to adjudicate contested matters before the CRMC.

The reason for last summer’s hold remains unclear. In October a DOA public affairs officer told ecoRI News the governor’s office had some “process questions” about the hiring of a new deputy director, and said nothing was frozen.

“This is an important position, and the hiring process is continuing,” the spokesperson wrote.

It’s the latest controversy to rankle the coastal management agency. Despite being virtually unknown to many Rhode Islanders, CRMC is a lodestar for state climate policy. With a staff of just over 30 people and a budget of only $5.3 million — half of which comes from the federal government — the agency regulates coastal development and processes permits for new aquaculture farms, offshore wind projects, and private housing developments close to state waters. Despite its small size, the agency estimates it processes some 1,100 applications annually.

The agency has a jurisdiction area that includes some 420 miles of state coastline, ranging from 200 feet inland to 3 miles out to sea.

Much of the applications deal with requests for boat docks, boat lifts, seawalls, residential renovations, and new construction. CRMC also identifies and protects public rights-of-way to the shoreline, tracks coastal flooding, and maps potential future damage from climate change.

But despite its key place in the Ocean State, the agency is hamstrung by lack of funding, lack of staffing, and old-fashioned Rhode Island politics.

Unlike the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management or most cabinet-level state agencies, CRMC’s executive director does not report directly to the governor. Overseeing the agency’s staff and work is an executive council that has final say over agency decisions, including overriding or ignoring staff recommendations.

The 10-member council is composed of nine political appointees — selected by the governor and approved by the Senate — and one DEM designee. There are few restrictions on who can be appointed to the council, mostly limited to coastal communities of a certain type and public officials. Appointees are not expected to have backgrounds in coastal policy, law, or other related technical expertise.

If CRMC does make waves in the headlines, its typically from a controversial decision by the agency. The council approved the expansion of Champlin’s Marina into Block Island’s Great Salt Pond at the end of 2020 in executive session after the council’s legal counsel, Anthony DeSisto, helped broker a mediated settlement that excluded New Shoreham officials.

Earlier this month the council chose to send a last-minute modification of Perry Raso’s 3-acre aquaculture farm application back to staff for further study, an unusual move since the project was already recommended for approval by staff. The ad hoc subcommittee formed to study the application originally went against the staff’s report and recommendation, and voted to recommend that the full council reject the aquaculture application.

The council was also paralyzed from early April to the end of June last year, when its members could not reach quorum during that time. Canceled meetings lead to delays in approval of projects before the agency.

Last year the General Assembly’s study commission on reorganizing CRMC released its final recommendations to the Legislature. The commission ultimately recommended changing the council from an executive to advisory function, aligning the executive director’s powers more on par with DEM.

But those changes are a heavy lift: a change of who is in charge at CRMC requires approval the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Commission chair Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, submitted a package of bills to reform the agency, including one that would require future appointments to the council have qualifications in specific areas and limit members terms to three successive appointments.

Other bills introduced angling to reform CRMC included legislation allowing public comment at the agency’s administrative hearings, and one requiring agency staff to hire a full-time staff attorney. (The commission also recommended hiring a hearing officer, but that requires the governor to appoint one.)

The future of agency reform remains uncertain. Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, who introduced the legislation mandating a staff attorney for CRMC, has said he intends to reintroduce the bill in this session.

But Ruggiero declined to run for re-election last year, and it’s unclear who will pick up the other bills aimed at CRMC reform. Legislative advocates with Save The Bay said CRMC reform is a key priority for the organization this year and are working on getting the bills introduced and passed.

Meanwhile, CRMC’s council still has two open seats available. Olivia DaRocha, press secretary for Gov. Dan McKee, said executive appointments were a priority for the governor, but did not say when the governor’s office would submit additional names for Senate confirmation.

McKee’s office made three appointments last year. He reappointed Donald Gomez, a retired Navy undersea warfare technician and Little Compton resident, who has served on the CRMC board since 2007.

The governor also appointed Stephen Izzi, a Cranston lawyer in private practice and former partner at the law firm Moses Ryan, and Catherine Robinson Hall, a former DEM staff attorney and coastal policy professor.

Three current members of the council are still serving on expired terms. Acting chair Raymond Coia, an administrator at the New England Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund, was originally appointed in 2003. His most recent term expired in 2020.

Saunderstown resident, real estate agent, and liquor store owner Jerry Sahagian has served on the council since 2002. His most recent term also expired in 2020.

East Greenwich resident and Newport planning director Patricia Reynolds’ term expired in 2020.

McKee’s first CRMC appointment to the board was Narragansett resident and renewable energy executive Lindsay McGovern in 2021.

Council members serve for three years, but in reality the specific length of their term is meaningless. State law allows council members to keep serving until a replacement is appointed and confirmed by the Senate, extending terms almost indefinitely and allowing council members to escape a confirmation hearing.

As of press time none of the CRMC reform bills had been reintroduced.