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Proposed Changes to R.I. Wetland Buffers Cause Agita

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New statewide guidelines for the protection of Rhode Island wetlands have been in the making for more than three years. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The changes to natural zones abutting lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, and areas prone to flooding were largely driven by developers and real-estate professionals who called for streamlining the construction permitting process. The proposed rules accomplish this by replacing local zoning regulations with statewide standards.

Environmentalists and open-space advocates like that elements of the updated regulations offer new or larger buffers for swamps, marshes, bogs, vernal pools, and some ponds.

Rhode Island’s proposed wetland regulations are unique to different regions. (DEM)

The rules create jurisdictional areas that are regulated by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). In most cases, these zones extend 200 feet from the edge of a river, floodplain, or reservoir, and 100 feet for most other wetlands.

The proposed regulations have several nuances and provisions, such as a requirement that notification of a development be sent to all property owners within 200 feet of a project. Also, a decision on an application must be issued within 42 days after a public hearing. Although local jurisdiction is eliminated, the rules allow cities and towns to petition state agencies for a larger buffer.

If the latest standards are approved, buffers would increase in most communities. While municipalities with stricter standards, such as Jamestown and Little Compton, would see some buffers reduced.

In Jamestown, for instance, setbacks from deciduous swamps would decrease from 150 feet to as little as 50 feet. Town planner Lisa Bryer objected to some of the state wetland regulations during an online Jan. 6 public comment meeting. Most residents, she said, rely on wells for drinking water and onsite septic systems, which are overburdened by hotter summers and increased precipitation.

“These events of climate change will strain the capacity of our freshwater swamps and wetlands to provide the environmental quality functions: flood storage, pollution filtration, nutrient recycling, for which we currently rely on them,” Bryer said.

She noted that freshwater discharge areas are becoming freshwater recharge areas. She said a long-term outlook is needed to ensure that buffers can keep up with development and the broad use of pesticides and lawn chemicals.

“I think we are entering a period of climate change that is accelerating and we may well look back and wish we had called for even further protections,” Bryer said.

Save The Bay riverkeeper Kate McPherson noted that within the scientific community a 200-foot buffer is considered “woefully inadequate” to protect wildlife.

“When viewed through the scientific lens,” she said, “these increases in buffer zones are not adequate for wildlife, and may not be adequate for water quality protection in many cases.”

McPherson, a wetlands scientist, noted that the proposed rules threaten woodlands and urban wetlands, which can have a buffer as small as 15 feet.

“Valuable forest will be lost to development,” she said.

Sustainable building advocate Grow Smart Rhode Island is also calling for greater protections for the small rivers and streams that flow through the state’s watersheds.

“In the event these areas become degraded we will not be successful in maintaining or restoring water quality elsewhere,” said Scott Millar, director of conservation for Grow Smart Rhode Island. “The science clearly supports more protection for these streams.”

The Rhode Island Builders Association (RIBA) opposes the larger buffers and asked for more time to vet the proposed rules. A forthcoming report from RIBA will include comments from three economists and a wetlands scientist.

One of the economists, Bryant University professor Edinaldo Tebaldi, questioned DEM’s economic cost-benefit report and suggested that the numbers be revised to not just consider the loss of property value but “reflect the true benefits to our society.” He noted the “vast literature” about the economic drawbacks of land preservation that aren’t included in the DEM report such as the harm to jobs, income, tax revenue, commercial real estate, and commerce.

The Rhode Island Association of Realtors claims the new buffers will reduce property values for single-family homes and lead to lawsuits by property owners who object to new restrictions on building.

“The approval of these rule-making changes may provide leverage to the government to deny most if not all expansion of existing homes,” said Philip Tedesco, the association’s CEO.

Save The Lakes, a group of Rhode Island lake associations, like that the rules expand protections for lakes and ponds, terms used interchangeably in Rhode Island. Its members said enhanced buffers for headwater wetlands and vernal pools would help keep waterways cleaner.

Save The Lakes director Ron Entringer noted DEM’s low staffing and called for greater oversight and enforcement of regulations, a sentiment that was repeated throughout the recent hearing.

The effort to create uniform setback regulations began in 2013 with a 16-member legislative task force. The recommendations culminated with a legislative mandate passed in 2015 that called on DEM and CRMC to establish freshwater wetland protections and enforce them. The rule-making has been delayed by disagreements between business and environmental interests, retirement of DEM staff, the public-health crisis, and a state mandate to reformat, index, and publish all rules online.

Terrence Gray, DEM’s deputy director for environmental protection, said the regulations have been vetted and are open to review by the public.

“The draft rules we have strike s balance for all of these interests,” Gray said.

Public comment is open until Jan. 22 and can be sent to carol.murphy@dem.ri.gov.

Once the comment period closes, DEM may approve the rule, approve it with minor changes, or restart the process if major changes are needed.

CRMC has similar wetland buffer changes to adopt for its coastal management regulation. Unlike the DEM rules, the CRMC rules don’t set time limits for approving an application, among other differences. CRMC is expected to announce a hearing date for its proposed regulations soon.

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