Another Bill Threatens Land Protection

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The onslaught from developers continues. On Tuesday, the latest in a series of bills that eases construction rules was given a hearing in the House.

Bill H6167, sponsored by Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, prevents planning boards from requesting additional documents than those required at the outset of the building application process. Opponents of the bill noted at the June 4 hearing of the House Committee on Municipal Government that, if passed, the law would prevent planning officials from asking a developer to determine if an unexpected issue, such as the discovery of an underground storage tank, was a public health threat.

Opponents included planners from Charlestown, Foster and Newport, as well as the state Division of Planning, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns and the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Dan Beardsley of Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns said the bill was one of 14 introduced by developers this year to ease building regulations. The most significant, the “slopes” and “dry lands” bills, are poised to become law.

The “slopes” bill, which allows unbuildable sloped land to be included in determining buildable lot sizes, passed the House (H5703) May 14. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill (S544) June 6.

The “dry lands” bill was strongly opposed by planners, environmental groups and land trusts because of its shifting of wetlands and septic setbacks from local oversight to the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) — a move that many fear could dilute more stringent, local regulations and allow development of protected open space. House bill 5425 and Senate bill 672 are expected to pass, and both are expected to survive a veto by Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

Beardsley said the bill preventing planning boards from seeking additional documents is part of the mantra from builders to dial back rules in the name of business. “What about giving the cities and towns the flexibility they need, so when an underground storage tank appears they can do something about it?”

Michael Kelly, a real-estate attorney from Lincoln, spoke in favor of the bill, saying that planners are burdening development by asking for too many permits and too much information in the application process. “It’s a detriment to the economy and slows down the entire development process," he said.

Foster town planner Ann-Marie Ignasher said the new rules would prevent municipalities from protecting the health and safety of the public. “When I saw this bill I was appalled," she said.

The bill was held for further consideration by the House committee. A consent vote would be held before the bill passed to the House for a full vote. A matching Senate bill has yet to be introducd. Both houses of the General Assembly must approve the bill before it can signed into law.