Common Ground Found on Wetlands Bill

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Developers and environmentalists are finding common ground on setting statewide standards for building near wetlands and septic systems. At a recent Senate hearing, many former opponents of the bill (S672) declared their tentative support to create a commission to settle the matter.

Russell Chateauneuf, chief of the ground and wetland program for the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), said a commission is likely the best approach for developing uniform standards.

“That I believe is the goal," he said. "Whether or not that is achievable 100 percent, will be up to the task force to decide.”

The proposed 11-member task force would be overseen by the state Division of Planning. The members will be from the DEM, Office of Regulatory Reform, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), one environmental group, a builders trade group, two municipalities, two businesses, a civil or environmental engineer and a wetlands biologist.

Statewide standards would be acceptable if they allow communities to protect their natural resource and help steer development toward urban centers to protect open space, said Jane Austin of Save The Bay.

“If this task force does its job, local communities should not need to establish more protective standards,” she said.

Several Charlestown leaders expressed concern about losing authority to regulate wells and septic systems. Charlestown lacks a public water and sewage system. Pete Ogle, chairman of the Charlestown Wastewater Management Commission, opposed the bill, saying it threatens the health and future growth of the town. Proponents of the bill, Ogle said, claim the town’s strict septic rules and wetland setbacks regulations have hurt economic development.

“If so, where is the long list of projects that have been killed?” he asked.

Ashley Hahn-Morris, Charlestown’s planning director, helped draft the revised bill. She said the bill shouldn't imply that a statewide standard is inevitable. “I would say it should be in the hands of the task force members who are all professionals, who are all representing their own vested interest in the issue to say yes or maybe there is another mechanism,” she said. “You’re tying the hands of the task force to be creative.”

Gary Ezovski of the Small Business Association Economic Summit helped revise the bill on behalf of builders, restaurateurs and manufactures. “This isn’t just about housing, it’s about all development in our state.,” he said. His group would favor stricter building standards as long as they apply across the state. “But the caveat to lifting it is, make the regulation clear, predictable and reliable," Ezovski said.

Paul Roselli of the Burriville Land Trust said town-specific building codes already help the state’s economy by preserving natural character and healthy ecosystems. “Actually, the standards that are out there are clear and predictable,” he said. “You can go to any one of the 39 towns and cities and look up a planning board regulation and find clear and predictable regulations that have to do with planning and zoning.”

Senate committee chairwoman Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, said the bill is an effort help developers and business owners who say their livelihood suffers due to inconsistent standards for wetlands and septic regulations. “We want to protect jobs in the state while still protecting the environment," she said.

A vote on the bill is set for May 29.