The following was submitted by Friends of The Waterfront;

The Friends of the Waterfront (FOW), the Newport-based “watchdog of the waterfront,” this week provided testimony and written comments to the House Special Legislative Commission on CRMC reform. FOW Attorney Michael Rubin’s testimony recognized the invaluable support provided by the CRMC staff in protecting and expanding public access to the shore. FOW made several concrete recommendations to the Commission, including ensuring that CRMC or any successor agency remain independent and not placed under the jurisdiction of any other cabinet department which has other functions; improving decision-making by strengthening the criteria for appointment to the Council; and by appointing an in-house attorney to represent staff in contested cases. FOW strongly urged that additional resources and priority be accorded to designation of rights of way. FOW’s full comments were provided to the Commission in a January 14, 2022, letter from board member Thomas J. Gibson, Jr. That letter can be found at FOW website.

In testimony at the Commission’s public hearing, FOW attorney Michael Rubin stressed the importance of a strong and independent CRMC in protecting and expanding public access to the waterfront. Rubin noted that FOW’s recent successes in protecting public access rights in Newport on Lee’s Wharf and Howard Wharf would not have been possible without the support and dedication of the CRMC professional staff. At the hearing, Rubin said that: “A particular strength of the CRMC is its independence.”  Rubin continued that: “Unlike our neighbors in New England or in most other states with a coastal program, the Rhode Island Legislature decided that the functions performed by CRMC should stand outside of any cabinet-level department that has other functions or duties. The maintenance of an independent CRMC is a bedrock principle for the Friends of the Waterfront. Under no circumstance should CRMC be placed under the jurisdiction of another cabinet-level department.”

Rubin also testified regarding access and the process to identify, designate and protect rights-of-way to the shore, testifying that “The identification, dedication, protection, and maintenance of public rights-of-way are ongoing efforts, and we rely upon CRMC to protect these public rights. In the past year, FOW has been part of two notable successes in Newport regarding public access, and the outcomes in these cases would not have been possible without the support of CRMC staff. In any reform of CRMC, FOW strongly recommends that the resources allocated to dedicating and protecting ROWs be increased from current levels. Our understanding is that there was once a dedicated fund for researching rights-of-way. This must be restored and even enhanced.”

In FOW’s January 14, 2022, letter to the Commission, FOW board member Gibson made two additional recommendations on CRMC reform. Gibson recommended that criteria for appointment of members to the Council be further strengthened if the politically-appointed Council is to be retained, writing: “Making decisions in the coastal zone is a highly technical undertaking from a policy, legal and scientific perspective. The Council needs to include persons with the professional qualifications and experience to make such decisions.” Gibson also wrote that: “FOW urges that CRMC staff be provided support from dedicated and independent in-house staff attorneys for legal advice and counsel on all matters including contested cases.”

The President of Friends of the Waterfront, Johanna Vietry, added “We appreciate the support and the work of the Commission, Chair Representative Deborah Ruggiero of Jamestown, and especially of Representative Lauren Carson of Newport who works tirelessly on issues that matter to FOW. We look forward to working with the Commission and our colleagues and collaborators to strengthen protections for access to the shore.”

Friends of the Waterfront (FOW) is a grass roots 501(c) (3) non-profit organization founded in 1983 by concerned Newport, Rhode Island citizens to insure continued public access to the Newport harbor front at a time when developers threatened to turn public access to private and to block nearly all access to the waterfront. These enduring public access pathways can be traced back to the colonial era.