PROVIDENCE – The chairwoman of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council has stepped down, leaving at a time when the agency has come under searing criticism over some of its decisions.
Jennifer Cervenka, an environmental lawyer with a practice in Providence, submitted her letter of resignation to Gov. Dan McKee on Wednesday.
Cervenka declined an interview request. In the two-page letter to the governor, she did not give a reason for her decision.
“I leave the council knowing it is doing exactly what it needs to be doing, with strong programs and dedicated staff that will continue to build on the success we have achieved,” she wrote.
Cervenka was appointed by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo in 2017. Her three-year term expired last year.
In February, she was set to be appointed to a second term and spoke at a hearing in the General Assembly, but after concerns were raised about questionable actions by the council, the Senate indefinitely suspended her reappointment and those of two other members.
McKee thanked Cervenka for her service.
“We will review candidates to head the CRMC and continue its work to preserve, protect and develop Rhode Island’s coastal areas,” he said in a statement.
With sweeping powers over what gets built along Rhode Island’s 400-plus miles of coastline, the council has always been a lightning rod for controversy. But these days it is more embattled than at any other time in recent memory.
Attorney General Peter Neronha excoriated the council for its approval last winter of an agreement that aimed to settle the long-running dispute over the expansion of Champlin’s Marina on Block Island. Opponents of the project complained that they were excluded from the talks, and the deal was ultimately rejected by the state Supreme Court. (Cervenka had recused herself from the matter because she had been involved in the case before taking a seat on the council.)
Just weeks later, Neronha again charged the council with acting improperly, this time in regard to its approval of a boatyard expansion in Jamestown.
Commercial fishermen have also found themselves at odds with the council over the development of offshore wind farms, saying the board has failed to stand up for their interests as companies look to install large arrays of turbines in important fishing grounds off the coast.
Last month, the House approved the creation of a special commission to consider a reorganization of the agency, which is unique in state government in that it has professional staff with expertise in coastal issues but puts all major decisions in the hands of a 10-member council made up of members appointed by the governor.
The concerns about the makeup of the council are longstanding. In June 2017, not long before it took up consideration of certification for a liquefied natural gas facility in the Port of Providence, three members known to be environmental advocates were replaced by Raimondo. Cervenka was among the group of new appointees.
Opponents of the fossil-fuel project said the member changes were politically motivated. Despite objections by neighbors, city officials and activists who argued the project would add to pollution in the area and threaten the safety of nearby neighborhoods, the council approved the project, saying its hands were tied by federal law.
The environmental group Save The Bay and others have been pushing for years for a restructuring of the agency that would include abolishing appointments. There have been past discussions about folding the agency into the Department of Environmental Management.
In her letter to McKee, Cervenka did not address any of the recent controversies, instead focusing on achievements, such as a positive report by the federal government last year about the CRMC’s programs.
“In the four years that I have served as chair of the council, I have developed a deep appreciation and respect for the expertise and skills of the small, but highly effective CRMC staff, and for the ways in which the council has carried out its collective objective to preserve, protect, develop and restore our beautiful, unmatched coastline,” she wrote.
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