R.I. Builders On Their Way to Getting Faster Approvals

Another bill would create statewide water agency

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The House is scheduled to vote May 31 on a bill that speeds up approvals for new home construction. H5475 cleared the House Committee on Municipal Government after a financial penalty for missing an approval deadline was removed.

The legislation is opposed by the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. Grow Smart Rhode Island, the sustainable growth advocacy group, disapproves of the bill and instead wants a committee of municipal planners and other stakeholders to decide if the timelines for construction approvals need to be changed.

At a March 2 hearing, planning board members and municipal zoning officials testified against the bill, saying it would stress understaffed building departments and potentially cause msitakes that lead to legal challenges.

The proposed changes to the state subdivision laws seek to reduce a building plan application certification from 60 to 25 days. A corrected application must be certified within 10 days, down from 14 days. A planning board must issue a decision on a project within 90 days, down from 120. Any approved projects must be recorded within 20 days, down from 35.

The new rules would take effect immediately once passed by the General Assembly.

The Rhode Island Builders Association submitted the legislation to increase the volume of new home construction in the state. Last year, Rhode Island issued 802 building permits for new homes. The association wants to build at least 3,000 new homes annually.

The Senate version of the bill was heard March 29 and is still in committee.

Statewide water authority
A long-running effort by the city of Providence to unload Providence Water, the manager of the Scituate Reservoir, recently ran into a contentious hearing in the Senate.

In an uncommon alliance, environmental and business groups opposed S810. The bill creates a statewide water district that allows the state's 490 districts to join one entity for pricing and distributing water from the Scituate Reservoir, which provides water to 60 percent of Rhode Island.

At a May 25 hearing, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza testified in favor of replacing the city department with a statewide quasi-government agency. Elorza argued that Providence Water isn't suited to manage the long-term water needs for much of the state. As an independent agency, he said, the new entity would lower water bills for most ratepayers while improving the city's credit rating.

Save The Bay, the Conservation Law Foundation and The Nature Conservation favor a central water agency, but they oppose the legislation because it omits oversight by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The environmental groups also dislike that the legislation fails to include protections for open space and water quality.

Meg Kerr of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island wanted to know why a new agency is needed when the state water resources board already provides many water policy and planning functions for state water.

The pro-business Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) also wants PUC oversight and, like the Conservation Law Foundation, favors a study commission to offer recommendations on a central water board.

“The fact that we agree with the Conservation Law Foundation is quite unique,” said John Simmons, RIPEC's executive director.

Several Scituate residents and town officials were irked for not being invited to help write the bill. Scituate Town Council members want to have two seats on the new agency's 12-person board and more control over the fate of the protected open space owned by Providence Water.

Much of the land used to create the Scituate Reservoir was condemned and taken by Providence in 1915, but several residents were resentful of the action as if it occurred much more recently.

“A lot of people lost land and I still hear stories about people who lost their house,” Sen. Nicholas Kettle, R-Coventry, said.

Scituate Town Council president John Mahoney noted that 42 percent of town land is protected from development and therefore suppressing the commercial and residential construction sectors.

The bill was held for further study. A House version of the bill was heard May 2.