By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — A controversial bill to loosen regulations faced by home builders continues to bounce around the General Assembly.
The bill (H7866), crafted by the Rhode Island Builders Association (RIBA), would add just a few paragraphs to the state’s building code, but those few words could drastically change the look of rural Rhode Island. Provisions in the bill would significantly shrink the acceptable “buildable lot size” from 80,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet, eliminate the assessment of slope when calculating buildable area and add a definition of the oxymoronic “conservation development” to the code. Opponents say the bill would hamstring local zoning officials and open up hundreds of thousands of acres in rural Rhode Island to development.
The lead sponsor of the bill in the House, Rep. Raymond Gallison Jr., D-Bristol/Portsmouth, offered no testimony on the bill at a recent House Municipal Government Committee hearing, except to say that, “There is a lot of confusion surrounding this bill. It simply clarifies the building code for building officials.”
He then added, referring to RIBA representatives, “I don’t know much about the intricacies of the bill. I’d rather let the experts testify on them.”
RIBA President John Marcantonio, citing a study from Texas State University that ranked Rhode Island as the No. 1 state in land-use regulation, said, “Local legislation has grown exponentially, while the market for new homes has steadily declined. We’ve seen a 7 percent reduction in the (homebuilding) sector. The industry is underwater. This bill will slightly reduce that level of regulation, and allow us to put people back to work.”
There is no shortage of opposition to the bill, from statewide groups such as the Environment Council of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Association of Conservation Commissions, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the local chapter of the American Planners Association, Save The Bay, and a host of local land trusts and conservation commissions.
“There is widespread opposition to this bill,” said Paul Roselli of the Burrillville Land Trust, “We (opponents of the bill) feel that these changes would increase density in rural areas where many towns are ill-equipped to handle increased demand for water and waste services, increase municipal government service costs associated with an increase in single-family residences, increase the costs of revising each town's comprehensive plan, and lessen local control of zoning matters.”
Despite the drop in new home building, “The remodeling, renovation and repair building trades are thriving,” Roselli said. He noted his personal experience as a lead abatement certification instructor, and the lack of shortage of applicants for certification, as proof that some areas of the building trades are thriving.
While the bill contains language about “increasing density," by default, the bill targets only rural areas. As Roselli testified, “Areas of the state that are already urbanized will see no benefit at all from this bill.”
Roselli concluded his testimony by saying, “This law is in direct conflict with existing laws, Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resource Management Council regulations, and the statewide land-use 2025 resolution.”
Chris Duhamel, a representative of RIBA, said, “We’re not trying to create minimum requirements for lot size. The bill only offers some flexibility in determining lot size. It contains no usurpation of DEM or CRMC regulations.”
Jane Austin, spokeswoman and lobbyist for Save The Bay, testified against the bill. "This bill will loosen physical and environmental constraints on builders, and will ultimately lead to growth in areas where we don’t want it," she said.
“This is simply a new way of calculating contiguous buildable land area,” said Christine Engustian, legal counsel for RIBA. “It is in no way in conflict with existing legislation or regulations.”
The most vigorous opposition at the hearing came from Mimi Karlsson of the Hopkinton Affordable Housing Partnership. “We must continue to have large dry-lot zoning in rural areas to maintain water quality," she said. "This bill has no consideration for maintaining water quality. If we increase density in areas that rely on septic systems and wells, people will be drinking their own sewage sooner, rather than later. This is Leavittown lunacy that we don’t need in Rhode Island.”
Bob Baldwin, a developer speaking in support of the bill, said the bill is being framed by opponents as “creeping regulation versus environmental stewardship, and it’s not.” He pointed to a recent 48.5-acre lot that he bought that local zoning ordinances deemed suitable for building only six houses. “This bill would allow me to build 12-14 houses on that land," he said.
“There are houses standing empty all over Rhode Island,” Eugenia Marks said in opposition to the bill. “I’m not sure that regulations are the issue here. The impervious surfaces associated with increasing development in rural areas will increase pollution and stormwater runoff in these sensitive areas.”
The bill was held for further study.