R.I. Attorney General intervenes in Champlin’s court case
For this week’s chapter of “What went on here,” The Block Island Times has the latest installment on Champlin’s Marina and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council versus everyone else. There are two important things converging: the controversial, back-door dealings of the CRMC and the reappointment in the State Senate of some of those players.
On Monday, Feb. 8, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha announced that he was petitioning the R.I. Supreme Court to intervene in the appeal of Champlin’s Real Estate Associates versus the CRMC and the Town of New Shoreham, following the news that a deal was made between Champlin’s and the CRMC without the knowledge or participation of the town.
That came as welcome news to many members of the Block Island community who were dismayed by the events unfolding, at first behind their backs, and now in front of their eyes, and who have been asking themselves: “How could this have happened?”
The deal was affirmed at the CRMC’s meeting on Dec. 29, 2020 under the agenda item: “Request for Executive Session pursuant to RIGL section 42-46-5(a)(2), litigation, discussion on Champlin’s Realty Associates v. Lemont Supreme Court appeal.”
That closed session resulted in the adoption of a Memo of Understanding, that, if accepted by the Supreme Court, would grant Champlin’s an extension into the Great Salt Pond of 156 feet, with related lateral expansion of the fuel dock by 85 feet and permission for another lateral dock to be constructed at the end of the new dock extension, among other things. Oddly, with all the expanded dock space, the total number of boats allowed would remain at 250, to comply with the marina’s current Water Quality Certificate from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
The minutes of the executive session have been sealed, but the minutes from the open session show that there were seven members of the CRMC who participated and voted on the matter. Chair Jennifer Cervenka was “excused,” and members Lisette Gomes and Michelle Collie were absent. The minutes also show that the council entered executive session at 6:30 p.m., and emerged at 7:13 p.m. After 17 years of deliberations, it only took the CRMC 43 minutes to reverse everything that came before.
The participating CRMC members at the meeting were Raymond Coia (acting as chair), Donald Gomez, Patricia Reynolds, Michael Hudner, Jerry Sahagian, Joy Montanaro, and Ronald Gagnon, who was representing the R.I. DEM. The motion “to accept the MOU and authorize executive Director [Jeffrey] Willis to sign on council behalf,” was passed unanimously, as was the motion “to authorize Executive Director to take any further action necessary to the Rhode Island Supreme Court regarding the Memorandum of Understanding and Assent.”
In the press release from Neronha, he states: “In the motion filed with the Rhode Island Supreme Court today, the Attorney General has asked to intervene in the proceedings to address concerns about a recent closed-door mediation between the CRMC and Champlin’s that would allow for a marina expansion. Citing the Office’s responsibility to protect the public’s interests and the State’s public trust resources, the Attorney General asserts that the settlement agreement recently presented to the Court for approval was formed outside of the public regulatory process and does not account for the factual findings that formed the basis for the CRMC’s 2011 decision denying Champlin’s application to expand.”
Neronha also writes: “We are concerned that proper procedures are not being followed and we have made that concern known to the Court today.”
The mediation that took place before the Dec. 29 CRMC meeting was conducted by retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Williams and attended by Champlin’s attorney Robert Goldberg, CRMC attorney Anthony DeSisto, CRMC Vice-Chair Coia, and CRMC Executive Director Jeffrey Willis.
There was no one representing the Town of New Shoreham or the conservation groups that opposed the expansion since its initial proposal in 2003, because they were led to believe that if they chose not to mediate, then no mediation would take place, and the town and the Block Island Conservancy, the Block Island Land Trust and the Committee for the Great Salt Pond preferred to see the case play out in court, where they had prevailed again and again.
Meanwhile, five of the ten CRMC board members’ terms are expiring, and the R.I. Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture held a hearing on Feb. 3 on the reappointment of three of them – Cervenka, Gomez, and Coia. Initially, the reappointments of Sahagian and Montanaro were also up for consideration, but those names were dropped and so far, no one knows why.
This raised the eyebrows of the board of the Block Island Conservancy, which sent an appeal out to the community on Feb. 2, that started with: “We write today to request your immediate help to prevent a Rhode Island State Senate vote to reappoint four members of the Coastal Resource Management Council,” and ended with: “You can help us prevent their reappointment by clicking the link below to send an email to Senator Dawn Euer, Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture. Emails must be received by 2:00 p.m. tomorrow to be considered.”
Those emails got into the hands of Block Island’s State Senator Sue Sosnowski, and, she told The Block Island Times, there were about 300 of them. Many people, including Sosnowski’s colleagues in the Senate wondered why she had voted to move the appointees out of committee, mostly by unanimous vote, and onto the floor of the Senate. However, Sosnowski said that she was no longer on that committee, after 20 years. Still, as the senator representing the island she was concerned about the matter and approached many in the Senate, including the leader, “hoping to head it off at the pass.” The reappointments were scheduled for the full Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 10.
Until Sunday, Feb. 7, when the story of the back -room deal between Champlin’s and the CRMC hit the front page of the Providence Journal, Sosnowski was depending on the information she had from articles in The Block Island Times and from Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla. With the additional information, she said: “That’s enough for me [to go on],” adding “we have to do what’s right.” On Tuesday, Feb. 9, Sosnowski informed The Times that the efforts had been successful, and the vote in the Senate had been “pulled from the calendar.”
A message sent from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio dated Feb 10, to colleagues, says: “In light of the significance of the public process concerns raised by the Attorney General, we will not be considering advice and consent of the three reappointments to the CRMC currently on Wednesday’s calendar. Rather, I will direct that these nominations be placed on the desk.”