2017-12-07 / News

New state law will wrest control of wetlands decisions from town

BY TIM RIEL

A soon-to-be enacted state law regulating setbacks from freshwater wetlands, which is expected to be more lenient for homeowners, will supersede the town’s zoning ordinance.

A public hearing before the town councilors is scheduled for Monday night to amend the municipal code so it complies with state law. This setback only concerns onsite wastewater treatment systems, also known as septic systems. While the town enforces 150-foot buffers, the state law is expected to range from 50 feet to 100 feet, according to Town Planner Lisa Bryer.

Enabling legislation was passed in June 2016 and signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo a month later. Rep. Deb Ruggiero, who represents Jamestown and Middletown in the House, voted for the bill. Lawyers with the Department of Environmental Management currently are reviewing a draft of the new regulations. Once finalized and approved by the department’s director, the rules will go into effect statewide.

“We’re continuing to make progress,” agency spokeswoman Gail Mastrati said of the draft.

Bryer said the state is capable to deal with applications that request relief from the setback.

“We don’t have a biologist on staff,” she said. “The state has the qualifications to review these types of applications.”

In the past, the planning board has relied on the conservation commissioners to review these applications. These volunteer members, however, aren’t professional staff.

“It’s difficult for them to testify at the zoning board level with any authority,” Bryer said, adding that in extreme cases, the town has used taxpayer money to hire consultants to testify.

The 150-foot setback has been on the books since 2003. While the town only gets a few of these variance requests annually, Bryer said the regulation has been instrumental in protecting the town’s water sources, especially in the Jamestown Shores neighborhood.

“It’s been effective,” she said. “This ordinance has gone a long way to protecting the value of our natural resources.”

While Mastrati said the law’s intent is to “improve wetland protection through new and improved wetland buffer standards,” opponents have insisted the actual goal is to streamline the regulatory process for developers.

When the bill was introduced, the conservation board in town showed unanimous opposition because “feedback doesn’t seem to get much traction” in Providence, according to Maureen Coleman, chairwoman of the board at the time.

“They are taking the authority out of local hands,” board Commissioner George Souza said.

The board also was concerned about “some dramatic variance requests” approved by the state.

With the debate ongoing on Smith Hill during the 2015 legislative session, the Department of Environmental Management approved a setback for a property on Frigate Street that requested a septic system 51 feet away from the wetlands.

Following that assent, the applicant sought local approval, but after a negative recommendation by the planning commission, he withdrew his application from the zoning board’s agenda since the town had the ability to overrule the state’s decision.

If the ordinance is passed Monday, that option no longer exists. Under the new law, if the state doesn’t increase its setback, the Frigate Street septic system could have been built. However, Bryer said, even without Monday’s amendment, the town will be powerless once the state finalizes its rules.

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