Lawmakers want to ax coastal council

A state agency that does frequent business in Jamestown could become defunct if legislation from two South Kingstown lawmakers is passed.

The bill introduced by Rep. Teresa Tanzi and Sen. Victoria Gu would replace the Coastal Resources Management Council with a department under the executive branch. The aim is to bring “accountability and transparency” to the decision-making process that governs all infrastructure and development within 200 feet of a coastal feature.

The current structure of the agency is a board of directors with nine members who are gubernatorial appointees with consent from the Senate. There is no requirement that these members have any expertise on coastal resources. They also are tasked with appointing their executive director. Tanzi called it “the worst of insider politics.”

“There’s no one for the public to hold accountable for their misdeeds,” she said. “We need wholesale reform of the process and structure.”

That structure, according to the sponsors, has created an institution that lacks culpability. Concerns about the agency came to a head in 2020 when it approved a controversial expansion of Champlin’s Marina into the Great Salt Pond on Block Island without public input. Critics contended it was a “backroom deal,” and the decision was eventually struck down by Rhode Island’ Supreme Court.

Attorney General Peter Neronha, a Jamestown resident who criticized the Champlin process, testified for the bill.

“If protecting our coastal resources is a priority, and I hope it is, we need a dedicated agency with resources and expertise to handle these critical permitting decisions and enforcement,” he said.

The bill would replace the CRMC with a Department of Coastal Resources, which would be similar in structure to the Department of Environmental Management. The director of the new department would be a cabinet-level position that would be appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate and subject to the same accountability and oversight as other department heads.

“CRMC has significant structural problems that impede its ability to protect our coastline,” said Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save the Bay. “To ensure public access, properly site offshore wind and protect marine life, we need a well-functioning, accountable coastal resources department.”