CHARLESTOWN – Rhode Island’s smaller towns are reacting with disappointment to the passage of a bill that could curtail their authority to regulate development near wetlands.
The legislation, passed in the House on June 5 and in the Senate June 20, now awaits the signature of Gov. Lincoln Chafee. It seeks to standardize wetlands and septic system regulations by giving the state Department of Environmental Management the authority to set statewide environmental regulations. It would also require municipalities to ensure that their local standards do not exceed those set by the state, a provision that particularly irks the towns.
The final version of the legislation (5425-A, known as the “setback” bill), also mandates the formation by Dec. 31, 2014, of a task force, headed by the Division of State Planning, that would be responsible for drafting the legislation. Task force members would have 30 days to prepare and submit their recommendations for legislation setting statewide wetlands and septic system standards. The group will include scientists, engineers, representatives from the state, municipalities and the building industry.
The Charlestown Democratic Town Committee has sent a letter to Chafee asking him to veto the legislation. The letter reminds the governor of the town’s unique environmental features, essential to its tourism-based economy, and the necessity of preserving the town’s authority to regulate development.
“This bill would lessen our ability to protect our town from overbuilding and building in inappropriate places,” said Catherine O’Reilly Collette, who chairs the committee. “Certainly as Democrats, we want more jobs, we want to support the economy very strongly, but this is the wrong way to do it for our town, and for other towns as well.”
The Charlestown Town Council has passed a resolution opposing the bill. Council President Tom Gentz said he and others testified several times at the Statehouse hearings, to no avail. “It just has so much political traction that the best we could do is to put it into a study group and hopefully participate in the study group,” he said.
Hopkinton has maintained that the towns should decide which regulations are most appropriate for local environmental conditions.
“We know best what our town does need and doesn’t need,” said Town Council President Frank Landolfi. “We’re very good at controlling our own destiny, and to have the state take over something as serious as wetlands, and whatever else that might include – opportunities for outside developers to come in and find ways to sidestep these guidelines – it’s not good.”
Richmond Town Council Vice President Henry Oppenheimer also opposed the bill.
“I’m incredibly sorry that it passed. I think it’s a very bad bill. I think it’s a special interest bill. I don’t think it’s going to in any way, shape or form help the town of Richmond. I don’t think it’s going to help any town, to be blunt about it,” he said.”
John Marcantonio, executive director of the Rhode Island Builders’ Association, said the legislation’s detractors have misunderstood its intent. Just as the state building code and its provisions vary from town to town, he said environmental standards could be adjusted according to the needs of different ecosystems.
“Along the saltwater marshes, along the South Shore you’d have very consistent regulation that would probably be more strict than, say, a small pond in Burrillville,” he said. “Just like the building code adjusts to the variables within the industry, I’m sure this set of standards for the state would adjust itself based on the variables of the environment.”
Marcantonio argued that the number and inconsistency of regulations in the state made the legislation necessary, and that once the dust had settled, the creation of statewide standards would improve relations with the towns.
“When the state standards are created, I believe it’s probably going to improve the situation between the development community and the local towns,” he predicted. “A single process that everyone agrees to that protects and balances development and the environment, then there’s no more local battles over those issues.”
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