Innovation Ecosystem

Protecting 400 miles of RI coastline

Save The Bay, the AG, and legislators speak out to change the structure of the Coastal Resource Management Council

AG Peter Neronha joins Save The Bay's Topher Hamblett, State Sen.Victoria Gu and Rep. Terri Cortvriend to urge passage of a new law to transform the Coastal Resource Management Council into a more effective state authority.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/27/24
A better plan to protect Rhode Island’s 400 miles of coastline emerges in this year’s General Assembly, championed by the Attorney General and Save The Bay.
What would a billboard advertising campaign look like that champions the restructuring of the Coastal Resource Management Council? Would a series of photographs of fishermen and women inside the branches of Rhode Island-based banks create a newfound source of advocacy? Could advertising campaigns be underwritten by the Folk and Jazz festivals to support the legislation? Is there a way to highlight the threat from microplastics to the health of Narragansett Bay and its fisheries?
For all the many, many things that the Rhode Island Foundation does to support good work through investments of its generous donors, what are the chances that the community foundation will begin to pivot and start to invest in protecting Narragansett Bay from the ravages of climate change as an outgrowth of its Equity Leadership Initiative, given that issues around environmental justice and equity create a heavy burden for those Rhode Islanders who are persons of color and impoverished?

PROVIDENCE – The morning after state leaders had celebrated the success of the 988 Suicide Lifeline, many of the same state leaders had gathered at the R.I. Convention Center on Tuesday, May 21, to launch the inaugural summit of the R.I. Life Science Hub.

Gov. Dan McKee welcomed more than 600 attendees with the promise that Rhode Island’s moment in the sun had finally arrived, with the new Hub serving as a catalyst for the creation of good-paying jobs and new industries within reach on the state’s horizon.

House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi echoed the Governor's positive word tonic, revealing that the FY 2025 state budget would contain an $80 million bond to build a new life sciences building on the University of Rhode Island campus – nearly double the amount already invested in the Life Science Hub.

Still missing from the life sciences equation are the data trends and metrics to provide a roadmap to prosperity, with no plans as of yet to create an “Index of the Rhode Island Innovation Economy,” the cornerstone of the $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Is RI shovel-ready to replicate the MA-model for life sciences cluster innovation?”]

And Neil Steinberg, the chair of the board of directors of the newly created $45 million R.I. Life Science Hub, performed admirably in his role as corporate cheerleader, touting his role as “navigator in chief” guiding Rhode Island toward a brighter future.

There is  “a lot of potential and a lot to build on,” Steinberg declared on X a few days after the summit, saying that the “Rhode Island Life Science Hub will support company creation and growth, good paying jobs, and better care for patients!” [And, as if right on cue, Steinberg appeared as the guest of WPRI’s “Newsmakers,” painting a future so bright you might need to wear shades.]

As much as the Hub’s inaugural summit featured breakout sessions targeting discussions focused on “Enhancing Tech Transfer,” “Expanding Life Science Infrastructure,” “Increasing Access to Capital,” and “Growing the Workforce and Impacts of AI,” the first hour and a half seemed to be all about important men talking at the audience, with not much listening, in ConvergenceRI’s observation.

One nugget that was revealed during the keynote speeches by JLL’s Travis McCready and Robert Coughlin was a surprise “connecting of the dots.” Rhode Island real estate tycoon Joseph Paolino had played the key role of “matchmaker,” bringing real estate firm JLL’s corporate leadership together with Steinberg and House Speaker Shekarchi to launch the state’s Life Science Hub. It was a small world, after all.

A bay runs through it.  
The next morning, Save The Bay’s Topher Hamblett hosted a gathering that included R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha and legislators Sen. Victoria Gu and Rep. Terry Cortvriend to make the case for the enactment of new laws to govern the operations of the Coastal Resources Management Council.

It was, in many ways, the antithesis of the RI Life Science Hub gathering, where the focus, with the deep blue of Narragansett Bay behind the speakers’ podium providing a sense of place and import, was on how to achieve better protection of the state’s natural resources.

“Narragansett Bay is the heart of Rhode Island,” said Topher Hamblett, Executive Director of Save the Bay.

Hamblett continued: “Important decisions impacting our coastal resources should not be left in the hands of a council of volunteer political appointees. No one person, nor the council as an entity, is accountable for bad decisions and overriding expert staff recommendations. It is time to get rid of this relic of the bad old days of the Rhode Island government. The [current] Council structure needs to be eliminated.” 

New legislation introduced this year, Hamblett said, promised “to make the Ocean State’s coastal agency more transparent, accountable, and effective.”

Legal advocacy.  
In his remarks, Attorney General Peter Neronha captured what was at stake:

  •     “We will never be Boston as an economic hub,” the Attorney General began, his words captured by reporter Steve Ahlquist. “We have some real infrastructure problems that you don't need me to remind you of. We have a health care system that, unless we take aggressive steps to fix it, is in a state of crisis. We have doctors who won't come here. We have doctors and other providers who are leaving.”

The Attorney General continued: “The one thing that will attract the best and the brightest to Rhode Island right now is quality of life [emphasis added], and quality of life is what you see behind me. No matter where we are with the rest of our state, we should be protecting our coastline. When it’s our best attribute, we should be doing everything we can to protect it.”

“Rhode Islanders deserve a professional agency that can investigate and make decisions that are transparent and can be appealed if necessary to the Superior Court and if necessary, all the way to the Supreme Court,” Attorney General Neronha said, explaining what the new legislation was attempting to fix. “We know from our history in recent years that the CRMC doesn\’t understand that that's how this should work, but the professional staff does. They’re outstanding.”

Instead of spending time trying to fix the problems often created by the way the current CRMC operates, the Attorney General believes that the Legislature, by enacting a new law to transform the operations of the CRMC into more a professional agency, could increase the state’s capability to protect Narragansett Bay and its 400 miles of coastline.

“The amount of work that my office spends trying to fix the CRMC's core decision-making is far too much,” Attorney General Neronha said. “Those lawyers could be doing great work for the people of the State of Rhode Island if an agency like the CRMC was in good hands and doing its job, but that's not what we have right now...”

In terms of cost, there would be no added financial burden to the state, according to the Attorney General’s analysis. The newly reformulated agency would be able to hire its own staff attorney, rather than being dependent on hiring a private attorney.

Finding common ground    
State Sen. Victoria Gu, the Senate bill sponsor, began her remarks by echoing the Attorney General’s comments about quality of life.

“I represent the southern coast of Rhode Island, Westerly, and parts of Charleston and South Kingstown,” Sen. Gu said, her words captured once again by the excellent reporting of Steve Ahlquist. “People come from far and wide to enjoy our beaches, salt ponds, and shoreline. It’s a big reason why people stay here. The natural beauty also supports an estimated $5 billion tourism industry.”

Sen. Gu described the problem created by poor regulatory protection. “Our shoreline and our environment are under threat from poorly planned development from many decades ago. Our septic systems and storm-water runoff have caused algae blooms and poor water quality. One salt pond in my district has been closed to shell fishing for the past 20 years. Combine that with the intensified development pressure, warmer ocean temperatures, and rising sea levels, and I'm worried that we cannot take our environment for granted.”

The current Council, Sen.Gu continued, which is a politically appointed body, “is making decisions with major consequences for our future. But they’re not required to have expertise in coastal resources or environmental science. The issue comes up when the council sometimes undermines the highly qualified CRMC staff’s recommendations resulting in multiple lawsuits that the Attorney General’s office has been involved in.”

During the hearing on the proposed legislation in the Senate committee, Gu continued, “It was pretty striking to me that aquaculture and fishermen, who are often on opposite sides on any permit, both agreed that the current system is not working. The question now is: Who is the system working for? I don’t think it’s working for Rhode Islanders. We need this bill to make sure the CRMC can do its work to serve the people of Rhode Island.”

Beyond the blue horizon and the blue economy.  
In today's edition, ConvergenceRI covered four different events, four different agendas, four mornings in May – where all the issues converged, even if the news media did not portray them that way, save for ConvergenceRI. Are you listening, Rhode Island?

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