Following two high-profile development decisions that landed in court and have been criticized by the attorney general, Rep. Deborah Ruggiero on Thursday submitted legislation to explore the possibility of reorganizing the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

More from a press release from the General Assembly;

“The CRMC is a citizen zoning board that’s made up of political appointees, without any requirements that they have technical expertise, even though they make pivotal environmental decisions that impact future generations. We should take a deep, honest look at whether this is a responsible form of environmental stewardship for the Ocean State,” said Representative Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown) in a statement. “We should review and evaluate the procedures of the CRMC and ask questions. What would reorganization look like and would it benefit the people of the Ocean State? Why are so many CRMC council members frequently absent from meetings? Some of its actions have been questionable, to say the least, and we are overdue for asking those questions.”

The legislation creates a special House commission to comprehensively study and provide recommendations for the reorganization of the CRMC. The special commission would consist of 15 members including representatives, municipal leaders from coastal communities, members of the public and representatives from Save the Bay, the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association, the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.

The legislation calls for the commission to issue its findings and recommendations by April 1, 2022.

Last month the state Supreme Court rejected a settlement between CRMC and the owners of Champlin’s Marina concerning the Block Island marina’s proposed expansion. CRMC entered the settlement without including or even notifying opponents who’ve been fighting the expansion since 2003.

Recently Attorney General Neronha intervened in a CRMC decision to allow expansion and dredging by the Jamestown Boatyard, saying the council failed to state its findings of facts and conclusions of law, and that these procedural flaws may have deprived opponents of their abilities to effectively appeal.

Representative Ruggiero agreed, and added that the Jamestown decision also serves as an example of how CRMC members’ frequent absences from meetings may be affecting its work.

“CRMC has a 10-person council, so if three or four members are absent it gives greater influence to those who do attend board meetings and vote. For instance, the vote was 4-2 on the marina expansion and dredging in Jamestown that was met with a lot of community opposition. Who knows if the outcome would have been different if more members attended?” Representative Ruggiero said. “The residents of the Dumplings have appealed the decision now rests with Rhode Island Superior Court. The attorney general is spot on that process and full findings, as required by the Administrative Procedures Act, are necessary. Transparency matters.”

She said she is particularly interested in ensuring that CRMC is guided by an interest in protecting the environmental integrity of Rhode Island’s coast, one of the state’s most valuable and sensitive resources.

“The mission of CRMC includes developing coastal resources, but the primary guiding principle upon which environmental alterations of coastal resources shall be measured, judged, and regulated is required to be the ‘preservation of ecological systems,’” she said. “I look forward to a deep dive into policy issues and robust conversations with our state’s environmental experts as well as administrators and planners from Jamestown, Newport, Warwick, and members of the public as this commission studies ways we could improve CRMC.”

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Ryan M. Belmore

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