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Friday, April 5, 2024

How to try to overhaul R.I.’s troubled coastal resources agency?

Bring in the AG to help pass Gu CRMC overhaul bill

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

A proposal to overhaul the state’s troubled coastal regulatory agency is making a comeback at the Rhode Island State House, this time with the endorsement of the state’s top lawyer.

The legislation introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu, a Westerly and Charlestown Democrat, is nearly identical to the proposal unveiled last year to abolish the politically appointed arm of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. The legislation instead reshapes the agency as an administrative department similar to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Resources. 

But unlike last year, where the bill stalled in committee, the 2024 version is sponsored by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General.

“If protecting our coastal resources is a priority, Rhode Island deserves a dedicated agency with resources and expertise to handle these permitting and enforcement issues,” Attorney General Peter Neronha said in a statement on Wednesday.

Two other members of his team spoke in favor of the bill during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture at the State House Wednesday.

The attorney general’s support is not surprising considering his office’s role in a high-profile dispute over the proposed expansion of Champlin’s Marina on Block Island. 

The CRMC’s alleged “backroom deal” with the marina owners in 2020 is one of several contested decisions spurring calls to reform the agency. Neronha’s office filed a motion in 2021 in the legal challenge before the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2021, urging the court to reject the CRMC’s decision because it violated the public review process. The court ultimately sided with Neronha, rejecting the agreement in its 2022 decision.

“This is not specific to the people on the council, it’s more about the structure of how the council is made up,” said Sarah Rice, assistant attorney general and deputy chief of the office’s civil division. “We need the entity charged with these really weighty responsibilities to be transparent, to have clear responsibilities and to be empowered to make decisions based on their expertise.”

Applications languish in limbo

While Gov. Dan McKee took an interim step toward addressing concerns in the waning days of the 2023 legislative session, appointing a hearing officer to settle enforcement and permit disputes, the agency has continued to face criticism over its decisions, and the amount of time it takes to make them.

A string of approvals on federal offshore wind projects planned off Rhode Island’s coastline prompted the appointed panel of fishing industry experts to resign en-masse in August. Members at the time faulted the council for its deference to offshore wind developers at the expense of Rhode Island’s ocean habitat and the fishermen who depend on it.

Meanwhile, a contested aquaculture application proposed for Tiverton’s Sapowet Cove has dragged on for more than four years, leaving the applicants and opposing neighbors in limbo.

“That’s ridiculous, and it’s unacceptable,” Topher Hamblett, executive director for Save the Bay, said of the delay in the decision on the Sapowet Cove oyster farm. “It is the council itself that is the problem. That’s what needs to change.”

Hence, the sweeping proposal to scrap the 10-member council, transferring its power to the director and its expert staff.

“The staff at CRMC are fantastic, but this 50-year-old council structure just isn’t up to the challenges we face,” Gu said. “We need to make a change.”

The legislation elevates the director job to a cabinet-level position, and also calls for a full-time staff attorney for the agency. A separate, 10-member advisory committee composed of experts in coastal law and environmental policy would offer input to the agency on programs and policies, with public meetings held at least twice per year.

McKee’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget allots $6.2 million to the agency, slightly more than the $5.9 million budget approved for fiscal 2024. However, the governor’s proposed budget keeps staffing at the existing 32 positions, which does not include a dedicated staff attorney. 

The governor’s budget proposal also rejects the agency’s request for $100,000 to hire a new environmental policy analyst to help with review of offshore wind projects, as detailed in a presentation to lawmakers in the House Committee on Finance on Tuesday. 

Neronha is not the only power player backing the legislation to abolish the council.  

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson are also listed as cosponsors on the legislation. 

More than a dozen coastal residents and community groups spoke in favor of the bill during the hearing Wednesday, or wrote letters of support. They include the New England Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, Ocean State Aquaculture Association, Conservation Law Foundation, and the Environmental Council of Rhode Island.

Two separate pieces of legislation also heard Wednsday, both sponsored by Sen. Susan Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat,  offered more modest reforms to the council. One would require a “supermajority” vote of three-fifths of the council to override staff recommendations; the second calls for representation on the council from fishing and development industries and someone from Save the Bay.

Hamblett wasn’t interested in anything less than a total overhaul, though.

“There’s no half measure here,” Hamblett said in a recent interview. “Removing the council is the most important step that the General Assembly needs to take to make the agency more transparent and more accountable.”

All bills were held for further study by the Senate committee, the standard practice for initial public vettings.

Companion legislation to the Neronha-backed bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat. An initial hearing in the House Committee on State Government and Elections originally scheduled for March 14 was postponed. A new hearing has not been scheduled as of Wednesday.

The CRMC has not weighed in on any of the reform bills to its agency publicly.



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network 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.