2013-08-01 / News

DEM, coastal council in limbo with wetlands enforcement

By Margo Sullivan

Jamestown Vineyards on Beavertail Road has applied to the state Department of Business Regulation for a farmer winery license. The license hearing is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 2, at the department’s headquarters in Cranston.

The company has not disclosed its reasons for seeking the license, but several residents, including Don Wineberg of 354 Beavertail Road, have told the Town Council they are concerned about the impact on their neighborhood if Jamestown Vineyards launches a retail operation.

Wineberg said he will attend the license hearing and may ask the state to deny the license or to impose conditions, such as a ban on retail sales. (As of July 30, no meeting notice had been posted on the secretary of state’s website, but the posting is not required until 72 hours before the meeting.)

Pointing to the company’s history, Wineberg said, Jamestown Vineyards, which is owned by PBH Realty and is a part of the Procaccianti Realty Group, has “on multiple other occasions taken the position that a particular state license preempts the town of Jamestown and other departments of state government from applying their own laws and rules.”

Wineberg also referenced the company’s past environmental violations, which included clearcutting in the coastal buffer zone. He said the town could have difficulty enforcing its planning and zoning regulations if the license is granted without any conditions.

Ralph Izzi, spokesman for the Procaccianti Realty Group, said previously the company has resolved all past issues with the state Coastal Resources Management Council over clear-cutting in the coastal buffer zone and damming up a stream. He said the company is concerned about the environment and committed to protecting wildlife.

“Jamestown Vineyards will continue to operate within all the applicable federal, state and town regulations,” he wrote. “Additionally, through conservation plans, we will continue our effort to enhance the land by fostering new wildlife habitats for local species like the recently installed osprey nest and duck boxes.”

However, Laura Dwyer, spokeswoman for the state coastal council, said the Jamestown Vineyards, in fact, never corrected any of the six wetlands violations. The infractions date back to 2009 at its Beavertail property as it promised per an agreement reached in December 2011.

Moreover, she added, the CRMC, according to its own attorney, is now powerless to enforce the deal because of a bill the General Assembly passed in June 2012.

According to the coastal council’s file on Jamestown Vineyards, the company was charged with six fines – for $2,500 each – for damming up a stream and creating a pond on the property, Dwyer said.

“The violations involved alteration of a stream, freshwater wetlands and the buffer zone, to, in part, create a pond at the site,” the staff summary read.

Jamestown Vineyards also was facing a deadline to restore the property by June 1, 2012.

Dwyer said PBH Realty had committed to a deal to restore the property by reducing the height of a stone wall. The agreement followed four earlier proposals, which the state and PBH Realty had discussed, to correct the violations, but which the coastal council ultimately rejected.

“At several meetings, it was believed agreement had been reached to restore the stream,” the staff summary continues. “However, four restoration plans have been submitted, all of which propose maintenance of an impoundment.”

Dwyer said the struggle between CRMC and Jamestown Vineyards had been going on for two years at the time the 2011 agreement was struck.

But ultimately, the coastal council lost jurisdiction, due to a bill passed by the state lawmakers, she said.

The 2012 legislation, House Bill 7961, amended the powers of the CRMC in only one respect – it took power away from the council to enforce freshwater wetlands violations on agricultural properties.

Because of the amendment, Dwyer said, the jurisdiction over the Jamestown Vineyards now falls to the state Department of Environmental Management, and not to CRMC.

State Rep. Teresa Tanzi, the bill’s sponsor, said as far as she could recall, she introduced the bill in response to conversations with DEM. The goal was to streamline its procedures and give farmers some relief from burdensome requirements.

“I think it was just an opportunity to eliminate an unnecessary step,” she said. According to Tanzi, she didn’t want to weigh down the farmers with an extra layer of bureaucracy.

The Senate passed the amendment as part of the June 2012 consent calendar with Tanzi listed as the sponsor. There was no Senate co-sponsor.

Tanzi is a member of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

Donna Walsh, vice chairperson of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, was the bill’s co-sponsor. She also thought the request for the legislation had come from DEM but was unable to reach the agency’s legislative liaison on Tuesday to confirm.

Pending research, Dwyer could not immediately say how many properties were impacted by House Bill 7961. However, the new law did affect Jamestown Vineyards and a second property on Beavertail Road, she said, whose owner had been slapped with a similar wetlands violation for impounding a stream.

However, Gail Mastrati, spokeswoman for DEM, said the coastal council does have jurisdiction over freshwater wetlands violations, and questions about enforcement should be referred there.

DEM reclassified the Jamestown Vineyards property in November 2011 as a farm, she indicated.

She did not respond to followup questions about why the property was reclassified. Mastrati also did not address the status of the freshwater wetlands violations.

In 1996, the CRMC received exclusive jurisdiction of freshwater wetlands in the vicinity of the coast. However, according to Dwyer, the new law includes a section about giving DEM jurisdiction of any agricultural activities within freshwater wetlands, even when located within 200 feet of a coastal feature.

“In those circumstances, the statute requires DEM to consult with CRMC, but DEM has exclusive authority for the permitting and enforcement of agricultural activities within the freshwater wetlands,” she said.

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