opinion Newport Rhode Island

It’s encouraging to see the candidates for governor paying attention to the work of the Coastal Resources Management Council Study Commission and voicing concern about the CRMC. The future of the CRMC should be an issue discussed in the 2022 gubernatorial race. 

In June, the House of Representatives passed legislation creating a CRMC Study Commission, which has since been working to identify possible ways to improve the state’s lead agency for reviewing coastal property proposals. We’ve had some eye-opening, informative hearings that are highlighting the talent and experience of CRMC’s staff, whose professional recommendations are sometimes ignored by the council. The latter is a politically appointed board selected by the governor. Its members are not required to have any experience in coastal matters as they make permitting decisions, and currently the council serves without any term limits. You can view the recent CRMC Study Commission hearing at the General Assembly website.    

We will look at several recommendations to reorganize the CRMC, including a possible nominating committee for council members, much like the Judicial Nominating Committee for judges. The names of qualified, experienced candidates would be vetted and submitted to the governor (as opposed to political appointments) and she or he can choose from that list to fill the CRMC board. This would also create a “bench” of qualified candidates should there be a vacancy. We are also considering limiting service to a three-year term with no more than three terms for a total of nine years. 

The CRMC Study Commission has also learned that the CRMC is woefully understaffed and underfunded. It has only three enforcement officers. Yet this agency is tasked with  establishing and maintaining rights of ways for Rhode Island’s 420 miles of coastline, oversight of dredging projects, marinas, permits for aquaculture and offshore wind projects. The CRMC does not have a full-time attorney or a hearing officer. It operates on a budget of $5 million — $2.5 million in federal dollars and only $2.5 million in state dollars. 

Seventy percent of Rhode Island coastline is deemed conservation (Type 1 waters) and residential areas (Type 2 waters) where docks are acceptable, but marinas and dredging are prohibited. Of the state’s 39 cities and towns, 21 are coastal communities.

The CRMC needs to be a state priority. The work of the CRMC has changed dramatically over the last decade and certainly since it was first organized under federal law in 1975.

The House is committed to reorganize and modernize the CRMC, and with the support of our Senate colleagues, the state must prepare for the future as we navigate sea level rise, climate change, the growing aquaculture business and waterfront development. Let’s honor our Ocean State. 

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown) is the chairwoman of the special House commission to study the Coastal Resources Management Council. Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport) is a member of the study commission.