Compromise Reached for New R.I. Wetlands Building Law


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.


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  1. The new “wetland protection” laws will not be enforced by RI DEM (EPA’s agent). For two reasons: No. 1- RI DEM director (Janet Coit) and its chief Compliance Officer (David Chopy) testified before the House Finance Committee and Municipal Government Committee that they did not have the resources to enforce the RI’s environmental protection laws. . (P.S. please note that Janet Coit was Chafee’s administrative assistant in D.C. Apparently the only qualification required in RI to be it’s DEM’s director.)

    No. 2 – RI DEM has been historically “incompetent” at enforcing environmental protection laws against RI’s major industrial polluters (a.k.a. Significant Non-Complaint polluters).

    Here’s what the Inspector General’s Office says about RIDEM performance in 1999, long before DEM’s funding cuts: “The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) did not take enforcement actions in accordance with the EPA Enforcement Response Policy (ERP). RIDEM did not: (1) issue timely and appropriate enforcement actions; (2) ensure that violators returned to compliance timely; and (3) identify Significant Non- Compliers (SNCs). Specifically, RIDEM’s failure to dedicate available resources to RCRA indicated a lack of management commitment to effective enforcement. To compound the problem, RIDEM did not have a detailed RCRA enforcement policy or an effective enforcement tracking system.
    Additionally, RIDEM management did not believe the identification of SNCs was a State responsibility. As a result, RIDEM did not ensure that wastes were managed in an environmentally sound manner, thus risking the protection of human health and the environment”

    Now that you are “aware” that DEM is broke, and managed by incompetent political cronies, do you really think DEM can protect our precious wetlands with a “No Permits, No Problem” policy for RI’s major polluters?
    (Hello RI Recycled Metals, and Comolli-COPAR stripmine in Westerly.)

  2. it sound good; but, will it work on a day-to-day basis? When I, among others, have called DEM for help, responses are not always there, or even an explanation. The response on the telephone has been, "we’re over-worked and under-staffed". Did the legislature add money to DEM’s budget?

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