Implementing a Marine Plan for Rhode Island

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Grover Fugate is executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). In his role of nearly 29 years, Fugate is responsible for overseeing the development of all policies and programs for the state’s coastal program. Currently, he is serving as project manager of the Rhode Island Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (SAMP); the CRMC’s seventh such regulatory program.

First, it’s important to realize that each state will have their own approach, drivers, and implementation process; but, I wanted to share the experience of how Rhode Island implemented their SAMP across state and federal waters.  Rhode Island’s CRMC is a regulatory agency in Rhode Island, tasked with preservation, protection, development and, when possible, restoration, of our coastal areas. This means that in Rhode Island, we have a single, centralized body that coordinated the planning and implementation process. By comparison, like Massachusetts, have a decentralized approach, where planning efforts are carried out by representatives from each involved agency. There’s no right or wrong way, but everyone needs to understand how their state works, and what structure your neighboring states use.

The Ocean SAMP was built on a long history of marine spatial planning efforts in Rhode Island, and driven in part by the state’s renewable energy interests. It was tough at the very beginning; sometimes you change directions several times before gaining traction, especially when balancing competing interests. Our efforts really began in 1983, and these long-standing relationships were essential.

Rhode Island did approach the Ocean SAMP as a regulatory tool, while a number of other efforts are not regulatory in nature. We were supported by a governor who was both very interested and very concerned with how (and if) this process would work. The work truly began in 2008, and the SAMP was approved in 2010. But a written plan is just the beginning.

Once the state formally adopted the SAMP through the CRMC, we took a four-step process for federal implementation. First, we worked with NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management to amend our state coastal program plan to include the Ocean SAMP as routine change.  Then we submitted to NOAA a Geographic Location Description (GLD), which upon NOAA’s approval gave the CRMC the ability to review federal activities out to 30 nautical miles. We also worked with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on submitting the Ocean SAMP as a Comprehensive Plan under their regulations governing marine hydro-kinetics to ensure that FERC would give deference to Rhode Island’s plan.  Finally, the state then worked with BOEM to ensure the data collected through the Ocean SAMP would meet their standards and would be utilized by BOEM for any decisions made by BOEM in the OCS. Because the Ocean SAMP is recognized as having Federal Consistency authority it is a binding document for federal offshore wind projects. These actions provide the CRMC with the ability to ensure consistency and implementation of the SAMP over a broad number of activities.

In the SAMP, there’s a difference between enforceable policies and general policies. Enforceable polices are those granted to the CRMC and allow it to review federal activity and projects for consistency. General policies are able to be directly implemented under state’s authority. One thing we ran into was that our state policies were written decades ago, and at the time, they were in line with federal policies. During this process, we learned the need to ensure these policies are updated and rewritten, as they can fall out of standard with federal policies, and be challenged in court.

The SAMP also included a specific section, 1130, to apply adaptive management as we implement the plan. This helps ensure the goals and principles of the SAMP are actually achieved, and provides flexibility to achieve them, as we receive information from our monitoring and evaluation processes. Our first evaluation can be found here.

While this first evaluation shows great success in our earliest efforts, we remain dedicated and encouraged to our work in Rhode Island. We are also excited to continue working with the Regional Planning Body, to create a larger integrated management program for the Northeast. We are glad to see more holistic planning efforts continue and grow around the United States, and hope our experiences in Rhode Island are a useful example for others.


Kudos to our eastern neighbors- Rhode Island has paved the way for our state (CT) and many others to design and implement a CMSP.  They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I really hope Grover and Jen won't be upset if we beg borrow and all seriousness this is how things advance- by others being brave pioneers and others watching and learning from their efforts.  

Although there's not right or wrong way using a centralized or a decentralized planning approach, a decentralized approach could be more effective if a more diversified economical sectors are using the marine resources. It is possible than a centralized planning approach is more effective in those territories where few economical sectors (as fishing and aquaculture for example) are dominant. It is interesting to note how the decentralized planning approach become more evident as widening the planning efforts to the northeast ocean planning.

As one of the multiple lesson learned trough this planning story, is how important the political support is. The work truly began in 2008 because a very interested and concerned governor's support. Another lesson arising from this article is: "But a written plan is just the beginning." that clearly explain how long the planning efforts are and why an adaptive planning process is so necessary.

Rhode Island's SAMP seems like a good model of centralized management with federal consistency. I think it is interesting that they incorporated section 1130 calling for adaptive management to implement the plan and will be curious to see how this plays out if the plan is subject to challenge or claims of failure to enforce it. Courts have proven very reluctant to uphold conservation/management plans with adaptive management as a management strategy because of the flexibility these plans entail-- which is their very benefit. Courts tend to rely on specific triggers or targets to determine whether a plan adequately meets management objectives. This is especially true where protected resources are involved and they are bound by statutory requirements. While there are certainly numerous advantages of applying AM from a management standpoint, incorporating AM formally into a plan could make it difficult to survive judicial scrutiny (e.g., are protective measures specific enough, is funding guaranteed). It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as AM is incorporated more regularly into laws and regulations. 

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