By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
NORTH SCITUATE, R.I. — A plan to build 18 condominiums on a 6.7-acre lot about a quarter-mile from the Scituate Reservoir in a town that relies on wells for drinking water provides a glimpse into the pressures being put on water resources — locally, regionally, nationally and globally — by population growth, development of open space and a changing climate.
Scituate Town Council president John Mahoney wants to build the Chopmist Hill Estates on a wooded lot off Route 102. Scituate zoning ordinances require a minimum of 3 acres for each residence, according to the town’s comprehensive plan.
Some 75 residents who abut the Chopmist Hill Road property or live in the neighborhood of the proposed complex have signed a petition opposing such a development within the Scituate Reservoir watershed — the reservoir supplies Rhode Island with 60 percent of its drinking water. Neighbors also have filed a statement of opposition to the proposed development with the town, and a smaller group of 14 has hired an attorney, Robert Flaherty.
These residents, who have loosely formed a group called the “Neighbors Against Chopmist Hill Estates Development,” are concerned about the impact such a dense development will have on the water quality and quantity of their nearby wells. ecoRI News recently spoke with four neighbors at a home near the former apple orchard that is being marketed for condominium development.
The four residents — who wished to remain anonymous, although a few spoke at public hearings last year and signed the aforementioned petition, for fear of possible retribution — are all worried that 18 two-bedroom condos in six buildings will stress the neighborhood’s drinking-water supply, increase stormwater runoff in the area and introduce more septic-tank leakage into surrounding soils.
The Scituate Planning Commission has given Mahoney’s project master-plan approval with conditions. Although those conditions haven’t yet been meant, the Town Council president, who bought the parcel last March for $115,000, is marketing the property online as “DEVELOPMENT WITH APPROVALS and master plan IN HAND. Your chance to develop one of the first condominium complexes in all of Scituate.” The asking price is $850,000.
ecoRI News sent three e-mails to Mahoney’s address listed on the Scituate Town Council webpage but never received a response.
One of the people ecoRI News spoke with on Feb. 11 said he had to dig a new well on his property last year. The re-digging of wells was a common problem mentioned by area residents during project hearings last year.
During a June 21, 2016 meeting of the Scituate Planning Commission, about a dozen neighbors expressed concern about the impact the development would have on their wells. They claimed there was no way two to three wells would support 18 families.
A Cook Drive homeowner testified that many area residents consistently have their wells go dry. “August is not uncommon to see hoses running across the street as we share water with one another,” she said.
A homeowner with property that abuts the proposed development site noted that five of his neighbors have had to have their wells re-drilled during the past year and a half, telling the Planning Commission members that “you’re creating a burden on the underground aquifer. You have a responsibility to existing property owners and their wells.”
Another Cook Drive homeowner told the commission he has a 800-foot-deep well and if someone flushes the toilet, water dribbles out of the kitchen faucet. “... the pump guy has been to our house many times, he has tried all different things, and it always ends up the same way: we do not have enough water," he said.
A Chopmist Hill Road homeowner testified that she has two wells on her property. The current one in use is more than 500 feet deep and recently required another filter because of black sludge at the bottom. Her first well went dry. She and her husband are the only ones who live on the property.
Mahoney’s attorney, William Landry, told the commission that, “We have every confidence, given the water table levels and the analysis that we’ve done, that we can drill wells that would work successfully. Do we know that a hundred percent for sure, no.”
Landry also admitted that the project doesn’t really fit into the neighborhood, saying, “We believe that we have a proposal here that is not typical for the local land use patterns based on the density of the area ... It’s an area of single-family homes, but we think that the density bonus that we’re seeking is reasonable in view of the carrying capacity of the site.”
The project’s application was made under the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act. During last June’s Planning Commission meeting, Landry said five of the 18 proposed units — 25 percent — would be deemed affordable. He noted that Scituate is next to last — 38th out of 39 Rhode Island municipalities — in terms of providing affordable housing, at 0.85 percent.
The five-member board responsible for overseeing the town’s compliance of affordable-housing requirements has five vacancies.
The four neighbors ecoRI News recently spoke with weren’t concerned about the affordable-housing aspect of the plan, which they claimed Mahoney was only using to push the project through, but the size of the development — a 600 percent increase over what local ordinances allow there. They noted that Scituate’s zoning ordinances prohibited multifamily dwellings in this area. They said the parcel is zoned for one or two single-family homes, which they would have no problem seeing built.
They did note, however, they had a problem with Mahoney misrepresenting himself to the seller — a 70-year-old East Providence resident and a relative of one of the neighbors ecoRI News spoke with. According to a May 9, 2016 affidavit signed by the seller’s real-estate agent, and by a notary, both the buyer and his agent “verbally re-affirmed to me and my client ... that Mr. Mahoney would be building only 2 single family residences at this property.”
Mahoney also asked the seller to subdivide the property into two lots, which she did, according to the relative ecoRI News spoke with. A few days after buying the property, Mahoney filed the condominium project application with the town. The 15-year Scituate resident was elected to the seven-member Town Council in November, along with three other Independent Men of Scituate.
At a July 19, 2016 meeting of the Scituate Planning Commission, Landry, the project’s attorney, said a test well was dug on the site that yielded 4 gallons per minute at 130 feet and 10 gallons per minute at 560 feet. No other test well was dug.
Flaherty, the attorney for the seven neighborhood couples fighting the project, told the commission one test well doesn’t prove there is enough of a well-water supply on the property to cover the project’s 18 housing units without impacting the water needs of the existing neighborhood.
“You don’t know whether or not draining that subsurface water to support this project is going to interfere with the wells of the abutters and whether or not they’re going to have sufficient water to maintain their homes in your town,” Flaherty told the board’s members. “It’s all well driven, so if you remove a lot of water from that aquifer underneath that parcel, you may be taking the water from the neighbors.”
The Scituate Planning Commission ultimately agreed, approving a master plan for the project application that required the applicant to have an hydraulic analysis of the site done. Neighbors said they are still waiting to see the results from such an analysis.
The other two conditions concerned a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management resolving arsenic issues at the site, and a 100-foot vegetative buffer placed on the side and rear setbacks.