2005-12-15 / Front Page

DEM may change septic system regulations

By Dotti Farrington

The first suggestion of a possible change in the way the state Department of Environmental Management deals with the installation of septic systems, especially in the Jamestown Shores, was brought to the Town Council Monday by State Rep. Bruce Long (R-Jamestown, Middletown).

Earlier in the day, Long and state Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva Weed (DJamestown, Newport) extracted two-point plan on the problem from the state health and environmental management departments

Jamestown Shores, with a high groundwater table and relatively dense development, has a growing history of water-related problems, including one highly publicized incident of a polluted well, blamed on too many variances given for septic-system installations too close to private waterwells.

Until now, town officials have been telling the DEM that it needs to look at the cumulative impact of the septic systems that DEM approves. The DEM maintains that it has authority to look only at a specific lot, not at the neighboring properties. The town contends that it has not blocked development on lots that have a DEM approved septic system out of fear of being sued for “taking of land.”

Long and Weed have extracted promises from the DEM that it will seek the authority to look at cumulative impacts and to work with the state Department of Health on additional ways to provide relief to areas such as Jamestown Shores.

Whatever is done on the issues would be applied statewide, Long noted.

His report represented a break in the DEM’s past position of denying ways to help people who are fighting against the overdevelopment of their neighborhoods. He nonetheless cautioned that it will take a year or more to pass the appropriate legislation to enable the relief that the DEM and the health department believe they can provide.

Long, Weed, Council Vice President Julio DiGiando and several Jamestown residents met with the DEM and health department officials. Long said another meeting is set for January to continue work on solutions, including enabling legislation.

“We want to give DEM officials the tools they need to consider the cumulative impact of variances,” Weed said in a written report of the discussion. “For instance, voluntary testing of wells to build a database of information may be crucial to addressing and preventing contamination of wells over the long term. In the meantime, it makes sense for DEM to consider possible health implications resulting from the issuance of variances for septics near wells,” she wrote.

Long said that Jamestown has up to 400 vacant, unprotected residential parcels and the pressure to develop these lots is substantial. The lots are small and mostly in high or very high water-table areas, he said. “The area is already experiencing well contamination, low water yields, saltwater intrusion and localized flooding. Further development would dramatically exacerbate the situation,” Long said, referring to the Jamestown Shores.

Long and Weed said the meeting with state officials was “very constructive during which an array of issues, including many that were very technical in nature, were discussed. We think that good progress was made on developing an approach to addressing situations such as the one being encountered in Jamestown.”

Town Councilors Monday reviewed several notices of septic system installation variances that are pending with the DEM. They plan to draft letters to the DEM about overall concerns, and determine if they have specific concerns about any of the variance applications. In the past, town protests against variance applications have been ineffective.

The councilors will also continue local talks on ways to work on the problems with the state officials.

Charlotte Zarlengo, president of the Jamestown Shores Association, told the council that not enough is being done to protect water supplies and properties. She again asked the councilors to continue their efforts to establish orderly development in the community.

Hazel Turley of Seaside Drive, a veteran environmental activist, said that local zoning officials had turned aside her pleas about variances by suggesting that she does not have adequate training about the issues. She noted that she has a science degree, and has worked for 35 years in the health education field.

She also spoke about the need to test waters where residents swim. “I’m getting old and I’ll die, and I worry especially about the children who use the water,” she said. She said that she has been told by health officials that swimming water is only tested if it is part of a public beach.

Ellen Winsor, a north end resident, also spoke about the need to pursue solutions to water problems. She noted that the DEM’s request earlier that day for citizen reports about their concerns. “I encourage all Jamestowners to respond,” she urged.

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