Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Thursday, April 20, 2023

CRMC: Ripe for change or ripe for replacement

An existential crisis for troubled coastal management agency?

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

A bill by Sen. Victoria Gu (D-Charlestown, Westerly, So. Kingstown) far right, would eliminate the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. Also pictured are Sen. Joshua Miller of Cranston, middle, and Sen. Matt LaMountain of Warwick, left. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

The state’s coastal regulatory agency is ripe for reform.

But how much?

This is the key question lawmakers, residents and coastal advocates are considering when it comes to the politically appointed Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. 

The Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture on Wednesday considered five different pieces of legislation aimed at reforming various aspects of the 10-member, volunteer council, or eliminating it altogether. The bills come amid ongoing scrutiny of the council for unpopular decisions that go against the scientific expertise of agency staff. 

Further fanning the flames of controversy are prolonged council vacancies which have led to a string of canceled meetings, leaving business owners and community members waiting sometimes years for crucial approvals on projects and permits. 

“I don’t think anybody is against taking steps to increase transparency and trust in a public agency,” said Sen. Alana DiMario, a North Kingstown Democrat and chairperson of the committee. 

“We have a lot of different approaches, but they all speak to the same thing.”

Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat, provided three such approaches, through bills that would require a “supermajority” vote of three-fifths of the council to override staff recommendations; require representation on the council from fishing and development industries and someone from Save the Bay; and elevate the agency’s director role to a cabinet position appointed by the governor. 

Separate legislation from DiMario would equip the agency with a full-time staff attorney, empowering the staff to voice their recommendations with backing from designated legal representation while eliminating real or perceived conflicts of interest. (Currently, the agency hires part-time attorneys who are also in private practice and may represent other clients). 

Should CRMC be eliminated?

The most sweeping bill – and most widely supported in written and oral public testimony – would do away with the council altogether, reshaping the agency as an administrative department headed by a director. The legislation introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu, a Westerly Democrat, also incorporates the full-time staff attorney and governor-appointed director position from DiMario’s and Sosnowski’s bills.  

“We need to let the CRMC staff do its work,” Gu said. 

Gu’s bill provides for a 10-member citizen advisory group, offering representation to coastal communities and relevant industries in a scaled-back version that empowers the department director with final decisions. 

Topher Hamblett, advocacy director for Save the Bay, praised Gu’s bill as a “comprehensive approach” to reform. 

And one that’s been a long time coming. 

Save the Bay has been beating the drum to improve the state’s coastal regulatory agency since the 1980s, Hamblett said.

Various legislative improvements to the agency – some successful, others not – have emerged in recent years, though none as broad as this, according to Hamblett. 

“Why would anyone not want more transparency, accountability, and consistency that this bill brings to this agency?” Hamblett said.

Offshore wind farms

Addressing the agency’s troubled structure is all the more urgent given its role in the slew of offshore wind farms coming to nearby federal waters, along with oversight of the booming state aquaculture industry and waterfront development. Jeffrey Willis, executive director for the agency, said the mounting workload combined with staff vacancies has put pressure on remaining workers.

“Attracting talent is hard enough and retaining them is also proving a challenge,” Willis said. “We are losing staff to the market and to other state agencies.”

One partial solution to easing the workload is a designated hearing officer to settle disputes in permit and enforcement cases. The position was funded in the state’s fiscal 2023 budget but Gov. Dan McKee has yet to appoint, or even advertise the position. 

McKee’s fiscal 2024 budget proposal cuts the salary for that job nearly in half, and also flatlines the agency’s funding, despite Willis’ request to hire more employees.

“We feel like this agency is suffering from neglect,” Hamblett said.

McKee is also responsible for nominating members to the appointed council, which has three open spots – none of which appear close to being filled. Olivia DaRocha, a spokesman for McKee’s office, said there were no updates to share as of Thursday.

Canceled meetings

Since January, eight of the 12 scheduled council or subcommittee meetings have been canceled due to scheduling conflicts with the seven sitting members, according to Laura Dwyer, an agency spokesperson. Quorum rules require six council members in attendance to hold a meeting.

Stripping the agency of the council eliminates these attendance issues, ensuring residents and business owners seeking agency approval don’t have to wait years for an answer, said R. Daniel Prentiss, an attorney who previously served on the council and now represents clients in applications to the agency.

Prentiss represented the Town of New Shoreham, The Committee for The Great Salt Pond, the Block Island Land Trust and the Block Island Conservancy in their objections to the Champlin’s Marina expansion on Block Island, which is an oft-cited example of the problems with the council.

Prentiss recounted several instances during the 20-year case in which the council flouted its own rules, with little means of recourse.

“It took the Supreme Court to finally put that away,” said Prentiss, referring to the 2022 state court case rejecting the prior “backroom deal” that allowed the expansion to go through. “There’s such a diffuse line between legislative oversight and this amorphous body.”

Replacing the council with a department director, who like all agency heads would answer directly to lawmakers, provides that oversight, Prentiss said.

The Senate Committee did not vote on any of the bills, instead holding them for further study as is the custom in an initial public hearing. 



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.