2014-02-13 / Front Page

Waterfront owners take advantage of permits

Emergency assents OK’d in wake of Hurricane Sandy
By Margo Sullivan

According to the state agency that protects coastal resources, only two waterfront property owners in Rhode Island took unfair advantage of a special deal that allowed them to make Hurricane Sandy repairs without going through the usual red tape. Both are Jamestowners.

Conservation Chairwoman Maureen Coleman reported the news Tuesday during the commission’s meeting.

The question now, the commissioners said, is what does the Coastal Resources Management Council plan to do about the apparent violations.

The commissioners had discussed the two properties at prior meetings in response to their own observations. Moreover, the town received complaints from neighbors who saw extensive work underway in the buffer zone. Coleman said she did not want to name the individuals until the commissioners notified them about a pending complaint.

Coleman learned the news from Tim Motte of the CRMC, whom she collected facts from prior to sending a letter to the two offenders stating the town’s concerns. Motte said the coastal council had received several complaints about the two Jamestown cases, and had drawn the conclusion these breaches were isolated to the island. Similar violations had not occurred statewide.

Following Sandy, Coleman said the state had to loosen the regulations because of the large number of people who had to deal with property damage.

“It sounds like they reasonably had to have a less stringent process,” she said. “The two on the island appear to have pushed the boundaries.”

The state and the town, however, seem to differ in their reaction to the violations.

Coleman’s said her “broader concern” is that the incidents would pave the way to future “widespread abuse.” But the state’s coastal council, she indicated, is looking at the situation as a matter of just two problems statewide.

Motte said the CRMC’s director took charge of all the “emergency assents” that gave homeowners permission to do work.

“What about the oversight?” Commissioner Anne Kuhn-Hines asked.

“Obviously, on those two, there wasn’t enforcement,” Coleman replied.

Kuhn-Hines said in the future, perhaps the state should delegate enforcement to the local conservation boards, especially if the coastal council’s staff is overwhelmed by the workload. There is a similar model in the Bay State.

“In Massachusetts, the conservation commissions actually have a lot of power,” she said. “We could be the enforcer.”

Coleman pointed out the state was well aware about the two Jamestown cases. Motte told her the Conservation Commission wasn’t the first to notify the CRMC of the infractions.

“It’s not flying under the radar,” she said. “With that said, it’s done.”

“What’s the remedy?” Commissioner Michael Brown asked. “Is there any remedy at all?”

Kuhn-Hines suggested asking the coastal council in the future to send the commissioners a list of all the emergency assents granted.

“We’d have a heads-up,” she said.

Coleman agreed, and said the assents are public information. The problem with the emergency assents was the state bypassed the hearings.

“So they short-circuit the process and don’t have to notify anybody in Jamestown?” Brown asked. “It’s the wrong approach.”

Instead of protecting the coast, the CRMC allowed people to exacerbate the problem, he said.

“Only two people did that,” Coleman said. “Everyone else did a proper restoration.” Nonetheless, she suggested the commissioners could express their opinion about the emergency assents.

“They basically bypassed the public transparency and had their chief make the calls,” she said.

“Like the Sopranos,” Commissioner Kate Smith said. “What qualifies for an emergency if your house hasn’t been blown down?”

Neither of the two Jamestown properties had been structurally impacted.

“No,” Brown agreed. “They were damaged but not stressed.”

“It’s more of an enforcement thing,” Coleman said. “I highly doubt [the work] was approved.”

“It’s a harbinger for the future,” Smith said, and sets a bad precedent that other people may decide to follow.

“They need to do something,” said Brown, even if the state just sends a notice to say the work did not comply with the assent.

Coleman suggested the commissioners vote again to send a letter to the CRMC and ask it to address the two Jamestown cases.

In other business, the signs for the 86 conservation lots in Jamestown Shores have arrived, and Coleman brought a sample to show the other commissioners.

The white diamond-shaped sign, with black lettering, will be attached to nearby trees or mounted on stakes to identify the vacant properties. The properties were once known as the “tax lots” because most were taken for unpaid property taxes.

The town’s water committee acquired the lots, and the town still owns the property. The Conanicut Island Land Trust, however, holds a conservation easement to ensure they are managed and used properly. The lots are unbuildable but have value as wildlife habitat, wetlands buffer and water-quality protection.

Since the lots are town conservation lands, the commissioners acts as official stewards and are responsible for an annual report. It’s due about now, said Coleman.

She suggested a memo “short and sweet” to say the land trust has taken charge of monitoring and reported two encroachments: one by the town and one by an abutter. Also, Justin Jobin, the town’s GIS coordinator, will lead the effort to post the signs “when the snow melts.” She expects volunteers to help.

“It will be an education thing,” she said.

The volunteers will not be required to install a sign to identify every lot, since some properties are located deep in the woods.

Finally, the commissioners are holding off on the selection of a tree to plant in memory of former Conservation Commissioner Bob Kinder. Coleman said she received an “informal recommendation” asking the panel to wait until the site has been decided upon.

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