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

 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Attorney General Peter F. Neronha 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 Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC) into a Department of Coastal Resources under the executive branch. If passed, this legislation would replace the current structure of politically-appointed board members with a state department that would allow current CRMC staff, which has the necessary expertise on coastal issues, to effectively make decisions in the best interest of Rhode Islanders and our treasured coastal resources.

“If we as a state are serious about protecting our environment and coastline, then we need – and we deserve – a dedicated agency with the organization and expertise to handle complex permitting and enforcement issues,” said Attorney General Neronha. “This bill is about modernizing what has become an amateurish, inconsistent approach to protecting one of our state’s most valuable resources. We cannot afford to continue placing crucial environmental decisions in the hands of political appointees who lack the expertise and often get it wrong.”

“My Office’s work has intersected with CRMC on many occasions, including when we successfully intervened, on behalf of the public, in the legal dispute over the proposed expansion of a marina in Block Island’s Great Salt Pond,” continued Attorney General Neronha. “At that time, Champlin’s Marina and the CRMC attempted to circumvent the public regulatory process. Now, we are waiting to hear CRMC’s decision about an egregious violation of shoreline rules by Quidnessett Country Club after the club illegally built a seawall without permits and is now seeking a retroactive change to the rules to allow it to remain. While CRMC staff has issued enforcement actions against the Country Club, the Council, for some reason, is entertaining the petition for the rule change and putting it out to public comment. The fact remains that Quidnessett probably would never have built the illegal sea wall if they didn’t believe a politicized CRMC would allow them to get away with it. We need fundamental change at CRMC now, and I am grateful to our sponsors and leaders in the House and Senate for their consideration of this legislation.”

The aforementioned bills (2024-S 2928A, 2024-H 8148) would replace CRMC with a Department of Coastal Resources, which would be similar in structure to the current Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The director of the new department would be a cabinet-level position that would be appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and subject to the same accountability and oversight as other department heads. The staff of 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 always crucial work of protecting Rhode Island’s coastal resources. Additionally, the legislation would create a community advisory committee, which would provide input on policy.

“The CRMC is tasked with managing much more complex issues than it did 50 years ago, like offshore wind, aquaculture, climate change and shoreline access,” said Senate bill sponsor Senator Victoria Gu (D-Dist. 38, Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown). “An all-volunteer council just isn’t scalable. Rhode Islanders care a lot about shoreline access, marine life and protecting our environment, and they deserve a professionalized agency to tackle these issues.”

“Protecting the vibrance, resilience and accessibility of our coastline is critical to the economy and the quality of life that we deserve in the Ocean State,” said House bill sponsor Representative Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown). “We need a CRMC that is led by qualified individuals with experience in coastal development issues, who will be held accountable in the same ways as other public entities. Adoption of our bill would be a commitment to removing the politics from coastal development for the sake of a safe, sustainable future.”

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, CRMC’s decision to approve the expansion was rejected by Rhode Island Superior Court, 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, has filed an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and are 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 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.

 

 

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