Update on Champlin’s/CRMC Case

Thu, 11/11/2021 - 3:15pm

To the editor,
As you know, The Committee for the Great Salt Pond, along with the Town of New Shoreham, the Block Island Land Trust, and the Block Island Conservancy, has been opposing the proposed massive marina expansion at Champlin’s Marina since Champlin’s first applied for this development project in 2003.

One would think that once the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council finished their review and denied the application by unanimous vote of the Council Members in 2011, Champlin’s would do what any other marina developer would do and reapply to the CRMC with a smaller marina expansion
that would meet the marina expansion criteria set forth in the State Coastal Management Plan. Instead, Champlin’s attorney, Bob Goldberg, appealed
the CRMC denial decision to the state Superior Court. The Court heard the appeal and took six years for presiding Judge Rodgers to write a decision that upheld the CRMC 2011 denial of the proposal with a 54-page decision that included over 100 points of law and fact supporting the denial.
The Committee for the Great Salt Pond, The Town, and the other marina expansion objectors celebrated what seemed like a certain victory.
When lawyer Goldberg appealed the Superior Court’s decision to the Supreme Court, the marina objectors saw it as an imposition, but not problematic. Judge Rodgers’ decision was very well written, and clearly stated that the CRMC followed established coastal management decision-making criteria and procedures when it denied the Champlin’s application, and that the decision should be easy to defend before the Supreme Court.
But things are not always what they seem, and this case went downhill quickly. Just as the Supreme Court hearings were beginning, the CRMC announced that it had met secretly with Champlin’s to negotiate for a somewhat smaller marina expansion project, and that Champlin’s and the CRMC had agreed to this new deal in closed session without any notice to the public. What? How can a state regulatory agency reverse an earlier decision, especially while the original decision was being reviewed by the Supreme Court, a process that under state law prohibits any regulatory agency from taking any action with regard to the original developer’s application?

To make matters worse, the Supreme Court asked the Superior Court to hold fact-finding hearings to determine if the CRMC outreach to Champlin’s, which led to the agreement for a new marina expansion approval, was proper.

And now it gets interesting ... because when the Supreme Court refers a case back to the Superior Court, the judge assigned to hear the case is almost always the presiding judge whose decision is being appealed. Inexplicably (and you will hear that word a lot from now on) the case was referred to
Superior Court Judge Lanphear instead of Judge Rodgers. And coincidently, as Jim Hummel reports in The Providence Journal, Judge Lanphear worked as GOP Senate counsel for Champlin’s lawyer Bob Goldberg for almost a decade when Mr. Goldberg was the GOP minority Senate Leader.
Not surprisingly, Judge Lanphear found that the CRMC’s and Champlin’s mediation process, which led to the new expansion approval, was proper, in spite of the fact that any mediation, legally, is not valid unless all the parties, including the opposition groups, are invited to participate (they were not). Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha has taken notice of this case and has filed an objection to the CRMC’s and Champlin’s secret meetings and marina expansion approvals. His press statement released on the date of Judge Lanphear’s findings described above read as follows:

“Today, however, another Superior Court decision by a different judge has inexplicably tossed all the CRMC’s original transparent and fact-supported regulatory decision-making out the window and opened the door for its replacement with something the Administrative Procedures Act precisely forbids: a non-public, non-transparent, entirely unsupported mediation.”

You can find AG Neronha’s full statement at his website press room: AG Neronha Decries Superior Court Findings
So now the case is back before the Supreme Court and the whole world is watching. Within a week of the Superior Court’s findings that it was not improper for the CRMC and Champlin’s to enter into a back-room deal for an alternate marina expansion plan approval, Attorney Goldberg filed a motion with the Supreme Court asking them to allow Champlin’s to withdraw their original appeal to the Supreme Court because Champlin’s presumably now has what they wanted, i.e. CRMC approval for an alternate marina expansion plan. The Supreme Court subsequently denied that motion, but did allow Judge Lanphear’s report to be entered into the record. Presumably, this resets the clock back to November 2020 when the original appeal of the Superior Court’s 2020 decision was filed.
Will Rhode Island be one of the few states where a state regulatory agency denial of an excessive development project does not mean “no”? If so, and if you are well connected, why even go the regulatory agency for permits in the first place when you know that you can eventually get project approval through the courts?
Hopefully justice will prevail, Judge Rodgers’ decision will be upheld, and the new owners of Champlin’s, if they wish to expand, will file a new marina expansion application that meets the state’s marina expansion criteria and will go through the proper regulatory process with public input, as it should.

Henry duPont,
CGSP Director for Legal Advocacy
Block Island