New legislation from Rep. Teresa Tanzi and Sen. Victoria Gu 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.
“The current CRMC structure represents the worst of insider politics,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett). “Board members are political appointees who don’t need to have any specific expertise on the complexities of managing our coastal resources. There’s no one for the public to hold accountable for CRMC’s misdeeds. We need wholesale reform of the process and structure.”
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. These nine members then appoint CRMC’s director.
That structure, 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 lack of a state-appointed director makes oversight challenging.
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, environmental advocates and even CRMC’s own professional staff had opposed the project. Critics contended it was a “back room” deal that did not allow public input. The decision was eventually struck down by Rhode Island’s Supreme Court.
“Our experience in Champlin’s has really underscored for this office that, if protecting our coastal resources is a priority, and I hope it is, we need a dedicated agency with resources and expertise to handle these critical permitting decisions and enforcement of same,” Attorney General Peter Neronha said in testimony supporting the legislation.
The bill (2023-S 0772, 2023-H 6034) 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 bill would also replace the current council, a body composed of political appointees, with the Citizen’s Advisory Committee and require the new department to hire a full-time staff attorney. That, advocates say, would bring focus and accountability. Currently, CRMC contracts with a law firm that has other clients and interests.
The staff of CRMC, including marine biologists, engineers and environmental scientists would continue in their current roles.
“CRMC has significant structural problems that impede its ability to protect our coastline,” said Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save the Bay. “To ensure public access, properly site off-shore wind and protect marine life, we need a well-functioning, accountable coastal resources department.”
The bill was heard in the House Committee on State Government and Elections on March 17 and will be heard in the Senate Committee tomorrow, April 19.
“Rhode Islanders care a lot about shoreline access, marine life and protecting our environment,” said Senator Gu (D-Dist. 38, Charlestown, Westerly, 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.”
Recognizing the current staffing challenges facing CRMC, Senator Gu is also sponsoring legislation (2023-S 0889) that would impose a $500 civil penalty for anyone who puts up signs to deter the public from using public rights-of-way to access the coastline. The CRMC is already empowered to take action on signage, but adding this provision to the criminal code would empower the attorney general or local law enforcement agencies to remove such signs and prosecute violators. Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown) has introduced similar legislation in the House (2023-H 5700).
“We can only truly have public access to the shoreline if we have ways of getting to the shoreline in the first place, and that’s through our public rights-of-way,” said Senator Gu. “Across the state some people have put up misleading signs to discourage the public from accessing rights-of-way, but CRMC hasn’t had the resources to take all these signs down. This bill would allow local law enforcement to remove illegal signage.”
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