No one asked ex-CRMC head Grover Fugate for advice on fixing the troubled agency. So we did.

Acclaimed former executive director defends existence of appointed council

By: - April 21, 2023 5:00 am

Grover Fugate, who spent over three decades as executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, speaks at a Marine Law Symposium on offshore wind development at Roger Williams University School of Law Thursday, April 20, 2023. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

No one has heard much from Grover Fugate since the nationally renowned executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council retired in 2020. 

Fugate is still keeping an eye on his prior workplace though, including the controversies surrounding its politically appointed council. He hasn’t always agreed with the council’s decisions — the 2021 backroom deal that would have allowed expansion of Champlin’s Marina on Block Island was a mistake, he said, and he didn’t support the more recent decision to remove General Assembly oversight on the Revolution Wind project.

But Fugate doesn’t want to get rid of the council, as state lawmakers are considering, either.

An existential crisis for troubled coastal management agency?

“The council, despite their imperfections, allows for an open and transparent process before the public,” Fugate said in an interview on Thursday after speaking during the Roger Williams University School of Law Marine Law Symposium.

Replacing the 10-member group of volunteers with a full-time hearing officer to settle disputes in permit and enforcement cases also doesn’t make sense, according to Fugate. Recalling the council’s work on the lease for the Block Island Wind Farm – among the projects Fugate played a pivotal role in – Fugate said a hearing officer’s “yes or no” determination doesn’t allow for the same extensive analysis. 

He acknowledged the need for more staff, something he routinely asked for during his 34-year tenure and again a request of his successor, Jeffrey Willis. One potential solution pitched by Fugate: bring back former agency workers by removing the limitations on their ability to work without giving up their state pensions, much like the law passed earlier this year to temporarily let retired teachers work as substitutes without limits.

“We had 300 years of experience walk out the door,” Fugate said, referring to the simultaneous retirements of himself along with several other longtime agency staff in 2020.

He remained noncommittal when asked if he would return to work for, or offer mentorship advice, to the agency.

“No one has asked,” he said.

Consulting and teaching roles

Since retiring, Fugate has kept his toes in coastal development, working as a consultant for national environmental and policy groups on offshore wind cases as well as advising on coastal residential development in Rhode Island. He is about to start teaching a class to the University of Rhode Island’s ocean engineering students, and also teaches real estate licensing classes a few times a year.

Fugate was among the panelists at a two-day symposium about offshore wind development co-hosted by RWU and The Nature Conservancy. Speaking to a packed crowd of lawyers, environmentalists and offshore wind developers from around the world Thursday, Fugate laid out how his agency created the model for state-led development plans for offshore wind. 

That Ocean SAMP was first tested with the Block Island Wind Farm, and is now being used by the CRMC as it reviews the slew of major offshore wind farms slated for nearby waters.

“The scale of deployment we are about to see has never occurred from Mid-Atlantic up,” Fugate said during a panel discussion Thursday. “It’s a grand experiment, and we don’t know what we’re doing.”

His best advice to advocates looking to head off environmental concerns emerging around these towering offshore wind turbines: Start planning early.

Like other panelists, Fugate emphasized the value in reframing the “do no harm” approach to environmental consequences of these projects, to one focused on making improvements to the ecosystems around the wind farms. 

This concept, known in the industry as “net positive impact on biodiversity” is the focus of the symposium, which continues through Friday. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.