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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Big staff changes at the Coastal Resources Management Council

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Grover Fugate was hired 34 years ago as the Coastal Resources Management Council’s first executive director. (ecoRI News)
Grover Fugate was hired 34 years ago as the Coastal Resources
Management Council’s first executive director. (ecoRI News)
Grover Fugate is heading a departure of staff and institutional knowledge from the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Fugate is set to retire by June 1 and will be joined some time this year by coastal policy analyst James Boyd. Aquaculture coordinator David Beutel is also expected to retire this year. Geologist Janet Freedman and two others are also eligible for retirement. 

Two other staff members are eligible to retire next year.

With only 30 employees, CRMC is one of the smallest state agencies, serving as a zoning department and oversight board for coastal and offshore development, including offshore wind.

Fugate has served as executive director since 1986, guiding the agency during some of its most tumultuous times. The CRMC council has been a source of controversy for decades, with unfilled seats, dubious political appointees, and favoritism toward developers.

The agency was created in 1971 after the near-approval of large fossil-fuel projects, such as oil refineries within Narragansett Bay. 

In 1974, CRMC made one of its most criticized decisions, when it approved the filling of 45 acres of upper Narragansett Bay to build a port terminal for the Providence & Worcester Railroad.

It wasn't until 1986 that CRMC received staff funding, and Fugate was hired as its first and, so far, only executive director.

More recently, the CRMC council endured the scorn of the environmental community for its approval of a natural-gas liquefaction plant at the Port of Providence.

Fugate doesn’t vote on project applications, and at times the 10-member council makes decisions against the recommendations of CRMC staff, such as the approval of a seawall on Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown.

Unlike other state agency directors who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, the CRMC executive director is selected by the council. 

Complicating matters now is the fact that most of the seats on the CRMC council expire this year and new members or reappointments require approval by the Senate. Appointments are made by the governor. Members can serve for unlimited terms and outgoing members don’t have to leave until a replacement is confirmed.

Fugate has received national and international awards for coastal programs and policy, such as the Peter Benchley Ocean Award, and acclaim for CRMC’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP). The guide advances nearshore maritime activities and opened the way for the Block Island Wind Farm and the wave of offshore wind development since.

Similar SAMPs for beaches and Narragansett Bay serve as guides for shoreline issues such as aquaculture, sea-level rise, and other impacts of the climate crisis.

Fugate is leaving as the offshore wind industry is ramping up for massive development in federal wind areas off Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Many issues require guidance and approval from CRMC, such as the installation of transmission lines that run through state waters and the layout of thousands of turbines.

Fugate acknowledged that finding replacements might be difficult considering that the private sector offers higher wages and better benefits than CRMC.

He told ecoRI News that the other retirees are leaving because they have also served long tenures at CRMC and qualify for retirement.

“There really is no good time (to retire"),” Fugate said.

The North Kingstown resident has no immediate plans after leaving, other than to take a break from his hectic schedule for a few months and spend time with his family.

“It’s a decision that I wrestled with for a long time,” Fugate said. “Sometimes you know you need to walk out the door.”

CRMC spokesperson Laura Dwyer said the agency has been preparing for the loss of the eight employees and their decades of experience and institutional knowledge. 

The retirements aren’t happening all at once and CRMC is preparing for the departures by holding staff talks and training to share and retain the institutional knowledge. Meanwhile, discussion of Fugate’s replacement is ongoing and may lead to a nationwide candidate search.

“It’s business as usual,” Dwyer said. “We will still go forward. We are planning for these retirements.”