Gu, Cortvriend and AG introduce bill to replace CRMC
with new Department of Coastal Resources

 

STATE HOUSE – Legislation sponsored by Sen. Victoria Gu and Rep. Terri Cortvriend and championed by Attorney General Peter Neronha would replace the Coastal Resources Management Council with a new Department of Coastal Resources under the executive branch. The sponsors say the legislation would bring much needed accountability and transparency to a vital part of Rhode Island’s public infrastructure.

“Rhode Islanders care a lot about shoreline access, marine life and protecting our environment,” said Senator Gu (D-Dist. 38, Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown). “Our beautiful coastline is facing significant pressures from development, biodiversity loss and climate change. The staff at CRMC are fantastic, but this 50-year-old council structure just isn’t up to the challenges we face. We need to make a change.”

Said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), “The current board running CRMC is composed of political appointees who don’t need to have any expertise about coastal issues and unlike our other government departments, they are insulated from the public accountability. In order to bring the necessary expertise and public interest to the leadership of CRMC, we need wholesale change of its structure.”

The legislation (2024-S 2928A, 2024-H 7844A) would replace CRMC with a new 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 bill would also create a new community advisory committee to provide the department with input on policy and program improvements and require the new department to hire a full-time staff attorney. Having a full-time staff attorney, advocates say, would bring focus and accountability. Currently CRMC contracts with a law firm that has other clients and interests.

“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,” said Attorney General Neronha. “More than three years ago, my Office 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 because of an attempt by Champlin’s Marina and the CRMC to circumvent the public regulatory process. The Champlin’s case, and the CRMC’s handling of other matters such as the Jamestown Boatyard expansion, underscored the extent to which CRMC needs reform. This proposed legislation to reform the CRMC would ensure more meaningful and transparent regulation and ultimately better protection of Rhode Island’s treasured coastal resources.”

Founded in 1971, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) is an agency with wide-ranging authority to determine public, private and commercial use of Rhode Island’s coastline. Nine members of the CRMC board of directors are appointed by the governor, with approval from the Senate. There is no requirement that these individuals have any particular expertise on coastal resources, and significant CRMC staff time is spent on getting new appointees up to speed. That arrangement, critics say, has created an institution that lacks accountability and transparency. While the directors of public departments are subject to legislative accountability and oversight, CRMC’s structure makes oversight challenging.

“This legislation creates a coastal agency that is more transparent, accountable and consistent in its decision-making,” said Topher Hamblett, executive director for Save the Bay. “Rhode Islanders expect and deserve a coastal agency that is free of politics and conflicts of interest. Removing the politically-appointed Council from the structure is the right thing to do. Save The Bay applauds Attorney General Neronha, Senator Gu and Representative Cortvriend for introducing these bills.”

Concerns around CRMC came to a head in 2020 when the agency approved a controversial expansion of Champlin’s Marina into the Great Salt Pond on Block Island without public input. The town, local residents, the attorney general and environmental advocates opposed the mediated settlement, which directly contradicted many extensive previous findings of CRMC staff and the council. Critics contended it was a “back room” deal that did not allow public input and violated the Administrative Procedures Act. The decision was eventually struck down by Rhode Island’s Supreme Court.

The Senate version of this bill, which has 15 cosponsors in addition to Senator Gu, will be heard in the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee today, April 3, at 4 p.m. in the Senate Lounge on the second floor of the State House.

 

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