Builders Seek Changes to Wetlands, Septic Setbacks

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A bill (pdf) that strips cities and towns from enacting setbacks near wetlands and septic systems is again creating a rift. Environmentalists see the legislation as a threat to drinking-water supplies and believe it opens the door for new construction in sensitive habitats, particularly in coastal areas and other wetlands.

Proponents say the bill gives developers uniform guidelines for building across Rhode Island.

Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, consistently challenged opponents of the bill during a March 13 hearing. “We want to take away the onerous hurdles that put too many regulations on our state,” he said.

Paul Roselli of the Burrillville Land Trust spoke againgt the legislation, saying the bill is a reprise of the “Dry Lands” bills put forth by the construction industry in 2011 and 2012. Legislation last year sought to include slopes and wetlands in determining buildable lot sizes. Both efforts failed to get out of committee.

“I feel like I’m in a movie and the film is ‘Groundhog Day,’” Roselli said.

Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-Charlestown, chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources, bristled at the comparison. “It’s not a dry lands bill,” she said emphatically.

Opponents of the most recent bill repeatedly described the drawback of a “one-size-fits-all” approach that ignores the state’s varied topography and types of soil.

Thomas Gentz, president of the Charlestown Town Council, noted that his council voted in opposition to the legislation Monday night. Gentz said the town fears the legislation would threaten saltwater ponds protections and threaten tourism. “If you take away our town’s ability to do as we see fit, you’ll be taking away our economic development,” he said.

Gary Ezovsky of the U.S. Small Business Administration said consistent state standards would speed up the construction process. “It will help make Rhode Island a better place to do business,” he said  

Sosnowski favored the bill, saying that existing state laws are likely outdated. “Sometimes we have to change with the times,” she said.

The bill requires a two-year review of existing septic and wetland setback regulations before creating statewide standards that would be enforced by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).  

A similar bill (pdf) in the House has yet to be heard in committee. The Senate bill was held for further study by the committee until a hearing at a later date.