The Public’s Radio South County Bureau Reporter Alex Nunes spoke about some of the accomplishments with Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy at Save The Bay. Listen to the interview or read the transcript below. 

HAMBLETT: The 2022 General Assembly session is perhaps the most productive session for the environment that I can recall in almost three decades of working at the Statehouse for Save The Bay.

NUNES: Getting into some of the specifics, what would be accomplishments that you would highlight?

HAMBLETT: The General Assembly and the governor made long overdue investments in a number of very important areas, including finally beginning to rebuild the capacity of the [state’s] environmental agencies, especially DEM [Department of Environmental Management] by adding, in DEM’s case, 16 new staff, six of which are in the permitting and compliance area. There’s been a decades-long erosion in capacity at DEM that has finally been at least halted for now and reversed a little bit. So as long as DEM does not have the staff to both process permits and also do enforcement work, we think that leads to a situation where the bad actors will skirt the whole system, will not go in for permits or will develop outside of limits of their permits, because they're not afraid of getting caught. So fundamentally, that's a big change. That's about protecting the environment but also leveling the playing field so the bad actors don't have an unfair advantage over the vast majority of developers who are complying with the law.

NUNES: So the state Coastal Resources Management Council, CRMC, is charged with permitting and oversight of projects along the coast. Last year, there was a commission, a House commission, that looked into reorganization of CRMC. You were on that commission. Can you explain the purpose of that commission, why it was formed and any accomplishments that came out of that?

HAMBLETT: The point of it was to really take a good hard look at the structure of the agency and how it operates, and identify areas for improvement and structural change. What came out of it specifically, in terms of accomplishments, was something that's probably below the radar for most people. But in the final budget, funds were allocated for a full-time hearing officer at CRMC. And this sort of relates to the larger structural issue of who's making decisions at CRMC. The council is a 10 member body, nine of whom are all volunteer, and they're not required to have any expertise in anything to do with the coast. They're just political appointments. But they wield immense power on things like where wind energy facilities are sited, where development happens, where it doesn't happen. And there's a real lack of accountability. The hearing officer, by a law passed almost 30 years ago, is supposed to be the person adjudicating disputes on permits and enforcement actions. But for the last three decades, the CRMC has never had a hearing officer. So all those decisions are left with council.

NUNES: So was this something that was in your report, in terms of pointing out things that could be changed at CRMC? 

HAMBLETT: Yeah, the report covered a number of key reform topics, one of which was for the agency to have its own full-time, in-house staff attorney, and that did not make it over the finish line this year, even though legislation was put in to make that happen. Ever since its inception, CRMC has contracted legal services from private law firms that have other clients and other interests. Those law firms that have represented CRMC also happen to lobby at the State House for a whole host of other clients. So this agency is so important to the state that it needs a full-time staff attorney who's focused on the business of the agency only and not concerned with other interests and other clients. 

NUNES: So one other accomplishment: $4 million in appropriations for the state climate adaptation and resilience fund.

HAMBLETT: That's a program that we tried for about four or five years to get enacted by the [General] Assembly and funded, and it's for projects not just on the bay and on the coast, but also in river systems around the state. [It’s a] straight up grant program for cities and towns but also for public lands as well. So think about places like Colt State Park [in Bristol] or Goddard Park [in Warwick] that are experiencing the effects of climate change, like erosion and salt marsh degradation, and things like that. Last year, the program was passed into law, but the funding source was stripped out. This year, the Assembly took the very important step of actually allocating $4 million to, in effect, seed fund the program. I'm smiling right now, because it is remarkable that all these things we're talking about got passed in one session.

NUNES: Yeah. Why do you think that is? Why was this last session so successful? 

HAMBLETT: Part of the reason the session was so successful is that there are many groups, like Save The Bay, that had been working for years on these issues. So part of it’s perseverance, but I think over time, there's been a change at the General Assembly. There are newer, younger, more open minded members, who, on a real fundamental level, understand the importance of taking care of the environment and its relation to the well being of the state, overall economic quality of life, all those things. So I think it's a gradual change, but it is absolutely happening. And I would say, too, I think the environmental organizations are working more effectively and working more cohesively than in quite a long time.

NUNES: So looking ahead to 2023, what do you see as priorities for the next legislative session?

HAMBLETT: What we hope to do is build on it, not backslide, but actually build on it and get these other major issues addressed: CRMC reform, solar siting reform, and shoreline access. That's unfinished business, but I think we have momentum on all of them.

NUNES: Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save The Bay, thanks very much for speaking with me.

HAMBLETT: Thanks, Alex.

Alex Nunes can be reached at