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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Attorney General Neronha, Save The Bay, Senator Gu and legislative leaders call for CRMC reform

CRMC overhaul long overdue


“The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) as currently constituted, its time has passed,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha speaking at Save the Bay’s Bay Center overlooking Narragansett Bay. 

“CRMC decisions are made by political appointees appointed for whatever reason - reasons that when you look at the background of some of the appointees are not readily apparent. We are not doing the Bay behind me justice, nor are we doing justice to the people of the state of Rhode Island.”

Attorney General Neronha was speaking at a press conference on Wednesday alongside Topher Hamblett, Executive Director of Save the Bay, Senator Victoria Gu, Representative Terri Cortvriend, and advocates called for the passage of a bill that would reform the CRMC into a Department of Coastal Resources under the executive branch. 

If passed, the legislation would replace the current structure of politically appointed board members with a state department allowing current CRMC staff, with the necessary expertise on coastal issues, to effectively make decisions in the best interest of Rhode Islanders and our treasured coastal resources.

After the press conference, I spoke to the Attorney General:

Steve Ahlquist: Being on the CRMC seems to have helped the former executive director, Jennifer Cervenka, who's now working for Quidnessett.

Peter Neronha: It's ironic, isn't it?

Steve Ahlquist: It was a good career move. I know you won't comment, I'm just throwing it out there.

Peter Neronha: All I can say is that I've been in public service now in Rhode Island for almost 30 years. I've never had a client other than the people in the state of Rhode Island and I don't think I ever will, either.

Nerohna's remarks:

“This is an incredibly important issue to the people of the State of Rhode Island that deserves more attention than it has gotten,” said the Attorney General. “We stand here in this incredibly beautiful spot, but as Rhode Islanders, sometimes we forget the value of what you see behind us and across the state, our beautiful shoreline. Now, I had the opportunity last week to drive a U-Haul van from St. Louis to Chicago, moving one of my sons from St. Louis to Chicago, and then the good fortune to drive with that son home to Rhode Island. All of that took about three days. And in the course of that travel, I spent time in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut... What's my point? My point is while those are all great states, they're not Rhode Island. They don't have what you see behind me and across the state and we must protect what we have... It's one of the most important things we have going for us.

“We will never be Boston as an economic hub. We have some real infrastructure problems that you don't need me to remind you of. We have a healthcare system that, unless we take aggressive steps to fix it, is in a state of crisis. We have doctors who won't come here. We have doctors and other providers who are leaving. The one thing that will attract the best and the brightest to Rhode Island right now is quality of life, and quality of life is what you see behind me. No matter where we are with the rest of our state, we should be protecting our coastline. When it's our best attribute, we should be doing everything we can to protect it. The way the law works right now, and we're not doing that.

“Rhode Islanders deserve a professional agency that can investigate and make decisions that are transparent and can be appealed if necessary to the Superior Court and if necessary, all the way to the Supreme Court. We know from our history in recent years that the CRMC doesn't understand that that's how this should work, but the professional staff does. They're outstanding.

“The amount of work that my office spends trying to fix the CRMC's core decision-making is far too much. Those lawyers could be doing great work for the people of the State of Rhode Island if an agency like the CRMC was in good hands and doing its job, but that's not what we have right now...

“The Champlin case was a disaster. It took far too long. What was behind it? An aggressive move by a large company to expand a marina beyond what the environment deserved and what the people of Block Island wanted. That's a trend that's happening all across Rhode Island, a consolidation of the marine industry that is wielding power without proper regulation to the disadvantage of Rhode Islanders. The Champlin's Case is an example of why this must change.

“We have seen it in recent days with the Quidnessett Country Club. Let's face it, the CRMC as presently constituted has so little reputation for aggressive enforcement that you can build a sea wall without ever getting a permit to do that work and afterward have the gumption to ask to change the law, change the rules so what was illegal is now legal. The Council is giving that notion some legs - so we shouldn't need the Army Corps of Engineers to come in here and do our work.

“This is the way this should work: They build the wall without permission, they get a notice of violation, they get an order to remove it, and they don't remove it. The Attorney General joins the action. We go to court, we try to get a court order to remove it. If we can't get the court order to remove it, we take it to the Supreme Court to try to get a court order to remove it. The answer is not to change the rules after the fact to try to make legal what is in the first place illegal. That is what is wrong with the way this works.

“The way to fix this doesn't cost any more money for those out there who are worried about expenses. It doesn't cost any more money. You're getting rid of people instead of adding them. What that will mean is a professional agency that can do its work without the interference of a Council that frankly doesn't know what it's doing - is it listening to people or to voices that it shouldn't be listening to?

“The time is now. If we know one thing about our environment, it's that we have ignored it for too long and the chickens are coming home to roost. We need to take strong action to protect our environment and we need a regulatory agency that can do that. The answer is to pass this bill and for the governor to sign it. There's no more important bill in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the State of Rhode Island this year than this one. That's why this is the only bill that I testified on behalf of. We have an opportunity to fix what is broken.

“And if we don't get it passed, the only conclusion we can draw is that the people who have the power to fix it don't care about it and because they don't care about it, they don't care about the interests of the people of the State of Rhode Island.”

The bills (S2928A/H8148) would replace the CRMC with a Department of Coastal Resources, which would be similar in structure to the current Department of Environmental Management (DEM). 

The new department's director would be a cabinet-level position appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and subject to the same accountability and oversight as other department heads. The staff of the CRMC, including marine biologists, engineers, and environmental scientists, would continue in their current roles. 

The legislation would also require a full-time staff attorney for the often complex and crucial work of protecting Rhode Island's coastal resources. The legislation would also create a community advisory committee, which would provide input on policy.

“I wanted to echo Attorney General Neronha's comments about the quality of life. We are the Ocean State and this must be our top priority,” said Senate bill sponsor Senator Victoria Gu (Democrat, District 38, Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown). “I represent the southern coast of Rhode Island, Westerly, and parts of Charleston and South Kingstown. People come from far and wide to enjoy our beaches, salt ponds, and shoreline. It's a big reason why people stay here. The natural beauty also supports an estimated $5 billion tourism industry.

“Our shoreline and our environment are under threat from poorly planned development from many decades ago. Our septic systems and stormwater runoff have caused algae blooms and poor water quality. One salt pond in my district has been closed to shellfishing for the past 20 years. Combine that with the intensified development pressure, warmer ocean temperatures, and rising sea levels and I'm worried that we cannot take our environment for granted.

“A bit of history: When the CRMC was first established through the General Assembly in 1971, their legislative findings said that poorly planned development had already contributed to the destruction of the natural environment, as I mentioned with our salt ponds in my area, and that the preservation and restoration of ecological systems shall be the primary guiding principle upon which environmental alteration of coastal resources shall be measured, judged, and regulated. The Council, which is a politically appointed body, is making decisions with major consequences for our future. But they're not required to have expertise in coastal resources or environmental science. The issue comes up when the council sometimes undermines the highly qualified CRMC staff's recommendations resulting in multiple lawsuits that the Attorney General's office has been involved in.

“Even though we're a small state with 400 miles of coastline, there's a lot that CRMC had on its plate when it was first established. Maybe they're talking about docks and other commercial development. Now it has to work on determining rights of way, offshore wind, aquaculture, and long-term planning for climate change. We want the people making those decisions to be qualified. These are complex issues. The CRMC's structure and funding have not kept up with these demands.

“During the hearing in the Senate committee, it was pretty striking to me that aquaculture and fishermen, who are often on opposite sides of the issue on any permit or whatnot, both agreed that the current system is not working. The question now is, Who is the system working for? I don't think it's working for Rhode Islanders. We need this bill to make sure the CRMC can do its work to serve the people of Rhode Island.”

“I share the concerns about the consolidation of corporate interest and marina operations around the state,” said House bill sponsor Representative Terri Cortvriend (Democrat, District 72, Portsmouth, Middletown). “I've watched that happening over the last five years or so. This bill is very important. As somebody active in environmental issues, I don't understand why CRMC is crafted and put together any differently than DEM. It should be the same. I don't understand the political process. It's inappropriate and outdated and we must move this bill forward. Since I'm the last one up, I'll close by putting a pitch out to the organizations that are here today and implore you to reach out to your membership and ask them to reach out to their legislators. Implore your memberships to reach out to their legislators because that's what moves the ball forward... I think we have a good chance of moving this forward. My pitch is to reach out to your constituents and get them to reach out to their Reps and Senators and let them know that this is important. Thank you Save the Bay for your advocacy on all the issues and for protecting the beautiful area right behind us - which is our premier economic resource in this state.”

Among these disputed rulings, in 2020, the CRMC approved the controversial expansion of Champlin's Marina into the Great Salt Pond on Block Island without public input. 

The Attorney General, the town, community members, and environmental advocates opposed the decision, which directly contradicted many previous findings of CRMC staff and the council. 

After the Attorney General sought to intervene in the proceedings, the CRMC's decision to approve the expansion was rejected by the Rhode Island Superior Court and then reaffirmed by the Superior Court under appeal. Finally, the decision was struck down by Rhode Island's Supreme Court.

Currently, the CRMC staff has initiated enforcement actions against the illegal seawall built by Quidnessett Country Club in North Kingstown without CRMC approval. The waters that abut the Country Club, and now the seawall, are classified as Type-1 conservation waters, and that classification does not allow for such a wall to be built. 

The Club has now petitioned CRMC for those waters to be reclassified to Type-2 waters, a less stringent water classification that would allow for some form of the seawall to remain. While the petition seems deficient on its face by this Office's review, the subcommittee charged with evaluating the petition, instead of denying it, has filed an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and is actively considering making that regulatory change. 

If the petition is granted, the Club would likely benefit from asking for permission after the fact, thereby setting a dangerous environmental precedent.

“Narragansett Bay is the heart of Rhode Island,” said Topher Hamblett, Executive Director of Save the Bay. “Important decisions impacting our coastal resources should not be left in the hands of a council of volunteer political appointees. No one person, nor the council as an entity, is accountable for bad decisions and overriding expert staff recommendations. It is time to get rid of this relic of the bad old days of the Rhode Island government. The Council structure needs to be eliminated. Save The Bay applauds Attorney General Neronha, Senator Gu, and Representative Cortvriend for introducing legislation to make the Ocean State's coastal agency more transparent, accountable, and effective.”

The legislation was heard, with overwhelming support, and held for further study in both the House and Senate.