50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Establish a Coastal Resources Caretaker
by Cindy Sabato, communications
One of Save The Bay’s very first actions was advocating for the creation of a state agency to manage development along Rhode Island’s coastline in a way that would also protect our invaluable coastal lands and waters. We know this agency today as the Coastal Resources Management Council, or CRMC. Without it, Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island’s coastline would be drastically different, and not for the better. Nearly 50 years later, Save The Bay still monitors the agency’s performance and presses for changes to make it more accountable in the face of increasing pressures on our coastline.
The Coastal Resources Management Council is Born
The law that created the CRMC in 1971 specifically recognized the value of Rhode Island’s coastal assets and declared a state policy to carefully “preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, restore” them. The agency’s mandate was clear and powerful: “preservation and restoration of ecological systems shall be the primary guiding principle upon which environmental alteration of coastal resources shall be measured, judged and regulated.”
“Without question, the Bay and our coastal environment have benefitted from the CRMC’s existence,” said Save The Bay Advocacy Director Topher Hamblett. “It has designated public access points to the shoreline and works to identify more. Its zoning of Bay waters and coastal management plans have prevented full-scale industrialization of the Bay and helped achieve a balance of commercial and recreation use. Its programs and policies, by and large, prevent ecological harm and are helping the Bay adapt to changing climate conditions.”
However, as strong as the CRMC performs in coastal planning and development of regulations, the hearing process that implements them has fallen short frequently since its inception.
Conflicts of Interest Arise
The CRMC was, and still is, comprised of two parts: 1) a professional staff of environmental experts who develop coastal plans and make recommendations; and 2) a politically-appointed council that presides over hearings and makes decisions on proposals for hotels, condominiums, marine expansions, energy facilities and more. Its jurisdiction is generally three miles offshore to 200 feet inland from any coastal feature, such as a beach, dune, wetland, bluff or rocky shoreline.
Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the council made a series of controversial decisions. These decisions revealed serious conflicts of interest among its appointed members, which included elected officials and their corporate donors, as well as lobbyists from the petroleum, real estate and marina industries. One such decision was the approval of the Atlantic Beach Hotel in a fragile coastal feature near Easton’s Beach in Middletown. Another was the Bonniecrest Condominium development in Newport, which “led to the National Park Service stripping the area on Ocean Drive of its National Historic Landmark status,” according to Save The Bay archives.
Efforts to Reform the Coastal Resources Management Council
In 1984, Save The Bay became part of a “Reform the CRMC” coalition, proposing a new structure for the agency, term limits, proper checks and balances, and impartial legal counsel. We won some reforms, but continued to seek improvements. In the 1990s, we joined a “Separation of Powers” campaign to fight conflicts of interest throughout Rhode Island government by ending legislative appointments to the CRMC—a victory celebrated in 2004. And in 2017, we successfully challenged some of the governor’s appointments to the council on the grounds that appointees did not have the credentials required by law, and that too many members had been appointed to the council than were allowed by law. Ultimately, the General Assembly passed amendments to the law that instilled greater accountability and transparency in the appointment process.
Each of these victories has been an important step forward in the accountability of the CRMC, but “Save The Bay is doggedly pursuing the unfinished business of strengthening and professionalizing the CRMC, to ensure it truly is working in the best interests of the coastal resources put in its charge,” Hamblett said.
Striving for Accountability and Transparency
Save The Bay continues to call for experience or expertise criteria for the appointed council members who make critical decisions about our coastline. We advocate for the trained CRMC staff have legal counsel, as the council and applicants do, to support their findings when ignored by the politically-appointed council. We are working with CRMC to make its decision-making process more rigorous and transparent. And we promote legislation that supports a higher threshold for the council to override or rule against the recommendations of professional, trained staff.
The importance of holding CRMC and other environmental agencies accountable cannot be overstated. The Ocean State faces severe environmental challenges as a result of ongoing pollution and rapidly changing climate conditions. And there will always be political pressure to weaken the environmental protections CRMC is charged with enforcing. The decades ahead will test CRMC’s critical role in protecting natural resources, preserving public access and managing coastal development and vulnerabilities.