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Monday, May 16, 2022

Commission studying CRMC reorganization issues report

Structural reforms, more funding and new priorities recommended

The special House commission studying the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) has issued a report of its work, recommending short-term changes that include swiftly filling council and staff vacancies with qualified individuals, and longer-term structural changes.

“I’m very proud of the members of my commission for their thoughtful and constructive deliberations on how the CRMC has changed over the decades and how we can make it better to serve Rhode Island today and in the future. As we contend with climate change in our state’s coastal areas, we must protect and preserve our precious natural resources. 

"The recommendations ensure that decisions made by CRMC are in sync with our state and local efforts concerning development and conservation,” said Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), chairwoman of the study commission. 

“This is not the end of the conversation; it is only the beginning. The study commission has elevated the conversation about the CRMC to a new height, setting the groundwork for short-term and long-term legislative changes for this year and many years to come."   

The report, issued by the commission yesterday, noted that CRMC was founded in 1971 “under the principle that preservation and restoration of ecological systems shall be the primary guide upon which environmental alteration of coastal resources will be measured, judged, and regulated. 

Now, fifty years later, the founding principles still hold true, but the scope of work at the Council has increased dramatically. Rhode Island is the home of the nation’s first offshore wind farm and there are proposals for multiple large-scale projects off of our state’s shores. 

Aquaculture is a growing industry and it is creating some use conflicts within the state’s waters. Also, the Council must now plan for climate change and its impact on Rhode Island’s shores.”

In the short term, the commission recommended working within the existing structure, but filling the many vacancies on the council and its staff with individuals with relevant experience. Since July 2021, the council has had just six voting members, plus the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) director. 

All but one of them are serving beyond their appointed terms. There are three vacancies, including a chairperson. Since, by law, the council’s quorum is six members, it currently cannot hold a vote if any member is absent.

The commission recommends that all of the CRMC’s open seats be appointed within six months of a vacancy, and that consideration be given to members with qualifications in ocean engineering, coastal planning, and marine industry; and members with experience on local planning or zoning boards. 

It also recommends limiting council members to three three-year terms, not allowing any municipality to be represented by more than one member, and ensuring that an urban community and a non-coastal community are each represented.

The commission recommends funding a full-time hearing officer to hear contested permits and enforcement cases. Although lawmakers passed a law several years ago requiring CRMC to hire two full-time hearing officers, they have never been appointed. 

Currently, CRMC staff members review contested permits and enforcement cases, and make recommendations to the council, which can either accept, change or reject the recommendations. A hired attorney then writes the final decision.

And instead of contracting with outside lawyers, the commission recommends requiring CRMC to hire a full-time staff attorney using its existing legal budget. Currently, there is no full-time attorney at CRMC.

To help address CRMC’s growing aquaculture responsibilities, the commission recommends requiring applicants for aquaculture permits to advertise and hold a public forum in the community with municipal leaders to answer questions and define the scope of the project before a permit is granted by CRMC. 

To ease CRMC’s enforcement duties, the council recommends that harbormasters be empowered to enforce aquaculture CRMC permits. It also recommends a requirement that all aquaculture permit holders label their aquaculture equipment and retrieve loose equipment, or face a $2,500 fine.

The council also recommends that the council publicly review and update its regulations at least every five years.

In the long term, the commission recommended that CRMC become advisory in nature, and that the agency’s executive director be empowered to make all permitting decisions, with all appeals to be heard by a hearing officer, similar to the process at the Department of Environmental Management. 

Accordingly, the panel recommended that the executive director be appointed by and answer directly to the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, with a six-year term.

To increase coordination and collaboration with affected municipalities, the commission recommended that consideration be given to making them a party to CRMC-issued permits, as well as options to increase municipalities’ ability to enforce land-based zoning violations, such as misuse of docks or neglected equipment.

The commission recommended consideration of separating CRMC’s responsibilities for advocacy of aquaculture and permitting/enforcement into two departments, perhaps shifting advocacy responsibilities to DEM, since it handles marine fisheries.

Finally, it recommends reviewing permitting procedures in coastal zones, perhaps working collaboratively with local zoning officials to make the process smoother.

The special commission met 11 times since September 15. It includes Chairwoman Ruggiero, Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport), Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston), Rep. Michael W. Chippendale (R-Dist. 40, Foster, Glocester, Coventry), Save The Bay Director of Advocacy Topher Hamblett, Jamestown Town Administrator Jamie Hainsworth; Exeter Town Planner William DePasquale Jr.; Newport City Manager Joe Nicholson Jr., Rhode Island Builders Association CEO John Marcantonio, Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association President Richard Hittinger, Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association President Michael McGiveney, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography Dean Paula Bontempi, Audubon Society of Rhode Island Executive Director Lawrence Taft, New Shoreham Town Councilor Sven Risom and Westerly Town Planner Nancy Letendre.