Compromise Reached for New Wetlands Building Law

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly recently passed a bill that shifts oversight of construction near wetlands, such as ponds and streams, from cities and towns to the state. Although environmental groups had resisted the concept for years, they now are mostly on board with the new law.

“It is good for the environment and good for the business community,” Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save The Bay, said after the legislation was approved by the House and Senate.

Opponents of the concept initially argued that a one-size-fits-all approach weakens long-established wetland buffer zones and setbacks in communities such as Charlestown and Tiverton that have a high prevalence of well-water use and limited access to public sewer.

Most objections ceased when the new statewide standards, as established by a legislative task force, exceeded existing municipal buffers and even expanded to include new areas such as vernal pools, which are seasonal wetlands typically abundant with amphibians.

Paul Roselli, of the Burrillville Land Trust, was one of the most outspoken critics of universal buffers. Under the new law, Burrillville could lose 100 feet of its 200-foot building restriction near wetlands. The new rules, however, include previously exempt bodies of water.

“So, if identified correctly and mapped accurately, I could see a combination of streams, vernal pools and other wetlands also be included and actually increase the potential wetland buffer area in Burrillville,” he said.

During the June 24 House floor vote, Rep. Blake Filippi, I-New Shoreham (Block Island), said the bill infringes on local zoning regulations. “My concern is that DEM is going to come in, shrink the designated wetland buffers, and that’s going to cause properties that are at buildout to no longer be at buildout and they'll be able to expand existing structures.”

New Shoreham is one of six Rhode Island municipalities that are at risk of having reduced setbacks and buffers, while many communities that had no wetlands regulations will see increased protection under the new law.

The details of the program, however, are yet to be determined. The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has a year to create the standards and will do so through public hearings and input from other state agencies.

Thanks to the legislation, DEM has been given a 100-foot zone around floodplains and flood-prone areas and a 200-foot zone around rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and reservoirs. Setbacks from saltwater features will still be overseen by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Some of the freshwater zones will be classified as buffers, or protected areas off-limits to development. Others will be called jurisdictional areas, or land around wetlands that are subject to specific regulations. Municipalities also will have the option to petition DEM to increase the size of a buffer around a specific wetland.

How that process will work has yet to be determined, but DEM director Janet Coit said during a recent hearing that five employees would be needed to run the new program. There was no funding for staff in the legislation. Coit told ecoRI News recently that she intends to work with Gov. Gina Raimondo to fund the needed staff.

The bill was crafted after 18 months of meetings by a legislative task force, whose members included a wetlands biologist, civil engineers, agency heads, a builders association and a town planner.

In recent weeks, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau and the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association succeeded in lobbying legislators to exempt farming and other agricultural activities from the new wetland standards. DEM, however, will continue to oversee wetland alterations sought by farmers.

Builders held plenty of sway in the process. During its final meeting, task force members voted 15-1 to give cities and town the option to protect sensitive ecological areas with a 300-foot “critical resource area.” Only the Rhode Island Builders Association opposed the idea, and it never made it into the bill.

Gary Ezovski, who represent builders through the Small Business Economic Summit, said the new wetlands process achieves the goals of establishing clear, predictable and reliable building standards, while providing science-based protection.

“I think that is what DEM and the wetlands task force achieved in recommending the legislation, and I believe it will result in better opportunity for both Rhode Island business and Rhode Island natural resources,” he said.

Eugenia Marks of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island said the long effort by builders to streamline building regulations required compromise.

“Although this eminent law will not fully protect the natural values of water quality and habitat protection, it provides greater protection with greater clarity than does existing law,” Marks said.