Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island builders want to again loosen restrictions on construction to help accelerate development.
The latest development-friendly bill (H5475) speeds up the process for dividing parcels of land into smaller lots for building single-family homes.
The legislation changes state land subdivision laws by cutting the application certification time from 60 days to 25. It also requires a planning board to render a decision within 90 days, down from 120. A recording of a decision must be done within 20 days, down from 35. Failure to meet these deadlines would result in a refund of half the application fee.
Local developers claim Rhode Island has longer application times than New York, San Francisco and Boston.
“It’s at the point of being egregious,” Robert Baldwin, owner of R.B. Homes Inc. of Lincoln, said during at March 2 House hearing for the bill.
“Developers from out of town are flabbergasted by how long this time takes,” real-estate attorney Joelle Rocha said.
Opponents of the bill say approval and certification times are necessary to deal with the complexities of large subdivisions. Weeks and months are required so that stakeholders and experts can assess an application. Ample time is necessary to be sure decisions comply with legal requirements and withstand court challenges.
“These decisions have to be very thorough,” said Lisa Dinerman, senior assistant city solicitor for Providence.
Dinerman called the proposed 20-day period for zoning departments to write a final decision “pennywise and pound foolish.” She said it sometimes takes 15 days just to get transcripts from a hearing.
“To put these time limits on these is very burdensome," she said.
Dinerman and Peder Schaefer of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns called the refund penalty unprecedented. Schaefer said he may look into the legality of the proposed fine.
Grow Smart Rhode Island, an advocate of sustainable development, opposes the bill, saying changes to the Subdivision Review Enabling Act require vetting from a broad pool of land-use experts.
Lenny Bradley, an engineer with DiPrete Engineering in Cranston, said the refund and shortened times are necessary, because in some instances it can take almost two years to get a project approved.
“The main reason is, time is money,” Bradley said. “Rhode island is desperate to improve our economy.”
Baldwin noted that during the 1990s Rhode Island was building 3,000 units a year. In 2016, 802 permits were issued for single-family homes, according to Rhode Island Builders Association (RIBA).
Other bill opponents said the reduced application process would burden smaller communities that have fewer staff and less money to comply with the proposed regulations.
The bill is the latest by RIBA, which has in recent years successfully advanced legislation that eases building rules. Most were strongly opposed by environmentalists and open-space advocates.
In 2016, the General Assembly passed a bill that includes wetland buffers in determining buildable lot sizes. In 2013, legislation was approved to allow unbuildable steep slopes to be included in lot sizes. In 2015, a bill was signed into law that created statewide setbacks distances from wetlands. The state Department of Environmental Management is still determining the size of the setbacks.
Samuel Bell of Providence, the former chair of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, said the latest bill is good for the environment because it slows suburban sprawl by increasing development on smaller lots. Denser housing, Bell said, reduces carbon emissions, as homeowners in densely built neighborhoods rely less on vehicles to shop.
The bill was held for further study. A Senate version of the bill has yet to have a hearing.