Shoreline access, CRMC and land use: The latest House study commissions

Shoreline access, CRMC and land use: The latest House study commissions

by Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy

During every session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, legislation gets bogged down because of an issue’s complexity or controversy. On occasion, legislative leaders establish “study commissions” to more fully vet issues and generate policy recommendations for the General Assembly. Study commissions are usually chaired by legislators, and typically include members of government agencies as well as subject experts and advocates. The commission members are often presented with information about the topic from professionals in the appropriate field, and also hear testimony from the public.

The 2021 legislative session produced three study commissions, all in the House of Representatives, that focus on issues that directly impact Narragansett Bay. For that reason, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi appointed Save The Bay to serve on each commission. The study commissions began meeting this fall and, as director of advocacy, I represent Save The Bay on all three:

Coastal Resources Management Council
Rhode Island’s CRMC oversees important permitting and decision making regarding activities in the coastal zone, and activities like offshore wind development.

This study commission is examining CRMC’s structure, procedures and capacity, and will produce recommendations on how to strengthen the agency whose work has a major impact on the health of Rhode Island’s coastal environment. Commission members include representatives from fishing, shellfishing and environmental groups, as well as developers, municipal governments and academia.

The structure of CRMC has long been a major concern for Save The Bay. While we recognize the work and accomplishments of CRMC’s professional staff, we have long advocated that the structure of the agency is fundamentally flawed, primarily because of its Council. Nine of the 10 Council members are political appointees who are not required to have expertise in coastal matters, but who are empowered to make major decisions that impact our coast. Save The Bay has called for the abolishment of the politically-appointed Council and has pressed for other reforms as well.

We hope this commission will both shine a light on the need to de-politicize CRMC, and examine the need to provide the agency with more staff and resources so it can be more effective in protecting the coast.

More information about this commission, including the list of participants and documents, is available on the State of Rhode Island General Assembly’s website, here.

Shoreline Access

This study commission was established to address the growing conflicts and legal issues arising between private property owners and people using the shoreline. The commission’s members are from state agencies, the real estate and land surveyor sectors, as well as the legal, academic and environmental advocacy sectors.

Battles in the name of public access could almost be considered timeless. In the mid-1980s, Narragansett’s Black Point was almost handed over to developers before being preserved for the public.

Using the shoreline is a deep-rooted cultural tradition in Rhode Island that is protected by our state constitution. In recent years, disputes between private property owners and people using the shoreline have intensified, with rising seas and disappearing shorelines magnifying the conflict. The public’s right to walk along and use the shoreline of Rhode Island is guaranteed in Article 1, Section 17 of the Rhode Island Constitution: “The people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery, and the privileges of the shore…. including but not limited to fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea and passage along the shore.” The Shoreline Access Commission is examining this constitutional language, previous court rulings and the impact of shoreline erosion on public access.

Save The Bay is participating as an advocate for public access rights. We hope the shoreline access commission will recommend that laws protecting public access should be clarified and strengthened.

More information about this commission, including the list of participants and documents, is available on the State of Rhode Island General Assembly’s website, here.

Land Use

What happens on land directly impacts the health of Narragansett Bay and the public’s ability to access and use its shores. Conflicts over development (where and how it should or should not happen) have unnecessarily pitted economic development against the protection of natural resources. Climate change is only exacerbating these conflicts. The land use commission will examine state planning, zoning, environmental and other laws and regulations to get to the roots of those conflicts. This commission includes developers, attorneys, environmental and affordable housing advocates, farmers, planners, and state and municipal officials.

Save The Bay views the protection and restoration of natural resources as core to a state economic development vision and strategy. We hope the commission’s policy recommendations reflect these values.

More information about this commission, including the list of participants and documents, is available on the State of Rhode Island General Assembly’s website, here.

Together, these House Study Commissions have the potential to set the wheels of significant, positive outcomes in motion for Rhode Island’s environment. We are honored to be appointed to all three and we look forward to raising questions and advocating for measures that will support our mission of protecting and improving Narragansett Bay.


Track the Progress
Each study commission will meet regularly over the coming months. You can follow along with their progress by checking the broadcast schedule and tuning in on the Capitol TV website

*Please note:  Be sure to access the Johnson & Wales University Harborside Campus through the main entrance on Harborside Blvd. Your GPS may suggest taking Ernest Street to JWU’s Shipyard Street entrance, but that route requires a key card for entry.  

From Route I-95 North or South, take Exit 18 (Thurbers Avenue). Head downhill on Thurbers Avenue to US Route 1A (Allens Avenue). Turn right onto Allens Ave. Continue southbound on Allens Ave. into Cranston, where Allens Ave. becomes Narragansett Blvd. Turn left onto Harborside Blvd. at the traffic light by the Shell gas station. Follow Harborside Blvd. through the Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus. At the end of Harborside Blvd., turn right onto Save The Bay Drive. Save The Bay Drive becomes a circular, one-way roadway as you approach the Bay Center. Parking is available in four guest lots after you pass the main building. Enter the building through the main entrance.