2012-01-12 / Front Page

Water resources board proposes disbanding

New technical committee would replace defunct panel

Jamestown’s Water Resources Protection Committee would be disbanded, and some of its responsibilities shunted to a technical panel, under a committee proposal adopted on Jan. 9. The committee met to discuss and tweak its final recommendation to the Town Council.

The WRPC was established in 1999, when voters at the Financial Town Meeting passed a $100,000 warrant to purchase real estate parcels, development rights and conservation easements for the purpose of protecting the island’s aquifer. The money for those purchases is held in the town’s Open Space Fund.

Although Rhode Island law allows municipalities to vest their conservation commissions with the authority to pursue and manage the acquisitions, the thenseated council decided to establish – and grant that responsibility to – the protection committee.

Under its charter, the WRPC is also charged with identifying watershed areas, along with areas suitable for municipal wells and other areas, which – if developed – could impair groundwater quality. Additionally, the committee is tasked with annually preparing, and submitting to the Town Council, a priority list of properties “most critical for acquisition.”

The WRPC was not directly involved with the two-year effort to acquire the 100 tax lots in the Jamestown Shores, with that responsibility having been handled largely by Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero. But the committee provided the Conservation Commission with regular progress reports on the initiative, which was fi- nanced by the Open Space Fund.

The WRPC charter expired in December 2009. In his Feb. 2, 2011 letter requesting the reinstatement of his committee, Chairman Jack Hubbard told the council that, despite being “relatively inactive following the purchase of easements on the Neale and Dutra farms,” there was still “much to do.”

“Improvements to our water supply and, perhaps, some relief from the weather have reduced visible concern for the watershed,” Hubbard wrote. “Nonetheless, there are important properties in the watershed, which should be protected. Perhaps more important is the fact that significant development has taken place over the aquifer north of Eldred [Avenue], which not only adds to [water] demand but reduces recharge there.

“In addition to capacity issues,” Hubbard continued, “significant contamination possibilities still exist in the Shores area. I would propose that the WRPC’s earlier prioritization of properties be reviewed and a fresh set of priorities be set for protection.”

The council subsequently indicated some indecision about the future of the committee, and the WRPC has responded by voting for a recommendation to shift its work to a technical committee that would operate under the Conservation Commission umbrella. A motion for the recommendation was offered by Town Planner Lisa Bryer, seconded by Conservation Commission Chairwoman Carol Trocki, and passed unanimously.

The recommendation includes proposed revisions to the commission charter. Before their submission to the council, the revisions will be forwarded for review to Ruggiero and the commission.

In general, the WRPC is advising the adoption of charter amendments “to reflect,” the committee members agreed to say, “current and more comprehensive efforts to protect and preserve properties deemed by the Conservation Commission to be important to the health of Conanicut Island’s natural resources and residents. These efforts should be consistent with the Comprehensive Community Plan, the Recreation, Conservation and Open Space Plan, and good public policy.

“Priorities,” the WRPC recommendation continues, “shall be given to properties that, in the commission’s opinion, protect the quality and/or quantity of freshwater resources on the island. The commission may recommend to the Town Council properties to acquire under any of the methods outlined in [Rhode Island General Law] 45-35-3.”

The technical committee recommended by the WRPC would be comprised of a commission member, the town planner, the town environmental scientist, a natural resources scientist, a biologist, and “a person with a clear understanding of the methods of land acquisition, estate planning and property negotiation.”

The WRPC also agreed to recommend that the technical committee “would meet as needed and report quarterly to the chair of the Conservation Commission.”

One of the first tasks of the technical committee, Hubbard remarked, could be writing letters to the owners of properties identified for acquisition because of their location and tax status. The committee “would ask the owners to pay their [property] taxes and offer to forgive their taxes if they agree to donate their land to the town,” Hubbard said.

Currently, there is $126,000 in the Land Purchase Fund. Besides the land-acquisition efforts led by the WRPC, the town has sought to protect groundwater by working with the Department of Environmental Management to develop a regulatory approach through the adoption of a High Water Table Ordinance.

The ordinance requires a detailed analysis of the groundwater impacts from residential developments in areas with high water tables. DEM assisted the town by requesting state legislation requiring any development in the Jamestown Shores to account for cumulative impacts.

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