Exeter Faces Fall Deadline for Action on State’s Claim of Freshwater Wetlands Violations
June 28, 2021
EXETER, R.I. — The town has until the end of October to address an environmental violation notice stemming from construction work the state claims disrupted protected wetlands. The town’s director of public works said its plan to address the issues has been held up by new concerns requiring additional negotiation.
Stephen Mattscheck, Exeter’s director of public works, said the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) only recently brought up new claims that were not included in its original notice of a Freshwater Wetlands Act violation two years ago.
DEM issued a notice of intent to enforce (NOIE) to the town in September 2019. Based on an August 2019 inspection, the state agency said it believed Exeter violated Rhode Island’s wetlands statute, which prohibits activities altering wetlands without a permit, as well as DEM regulations covering the administration and enforcement of the act.
The notice said the DEM Office of Compliance and Inspection followed a complaint by an unnamed party with an inspection of a town property along Route 2, also known as South County Trail.
The notice detailed three specific violations allegedly committed by Exeter’s public works department. The inspection determined an access road for vehicles was built crossing a river and caused an unauthorized alteration of at least 200 square feet of freshwater wetland. The crossing resulted in “disturbance of the bed (bottom) of the River, soil erosion, and the deposition of sediments downstream of the crossing area,” according to the NOIE.
Another alteration of about 5,000 square feet of wetland occurred when gravel and other materials were used in clearing, filling and grading. The work created “surface disturbance within a Forested Wetland, which is also entirely encompassed by 200-Foot Riverbank and likely falls within the 100-year Floodplain of the aforementioned River,” according to the NOIE.
The third violation cited clearing, grading and filling in the form of gravel and other soil materials, pea stone, boulders, tree stumps and miscellaneous debris. This work also caused a surface disturbance, along with paving, storage of vehicles and machines, construction of a garage, shed, salt barn and other structures and the installation of an unpermitted onsite wastewater treatment system. All of the activities occurred within the 200-foot riverbank wetland and within the 100-year floodplain, resulting in unauthorized alteration of about 123,000 square feet, or about 2.8 acres, of freshwater wetland, according to DEM.
The NOIE said the inspector verbally warned Mattscheck not to conduct further work without obtaining a DEM permit. Further alterations were to immediately cease, stating “each instance of River crossing represents a new violation of the Freshwater Wetland Act.”
Several restoration requirements were listed in the notice. They included installation of a silt fence, biodegradable fiber logs and/or hay bales along the outer limits of the disturbance area, the removal of all deposited sediments from the river channel and the removal of all installations, constructed items and unauthorized fill material. Wetland seed mixture, shrubs and trees from an authorized list of species were also to be planted in the disturbed areas.
The town faced possible administrative penalties for the unauthorized alterations up to $5,000 per instance, according to the NOIE.
DEM chief public affairs officer Michael Healey said the agency granted Exeter an extension to the fall of this year after receiving a restoration proposal from the town.
“DEM is still working with the Town to address the issues,” Healey wrote in a June 18 email. “We sent comments on its plan to restore the wetlands and are waiting for the Town’s response.”
Healey said the agency’s comments are not available to the public and remain part of DEM’s ongoing case.
“I would characterize them as extensive but straightforward,” Healey wrote in a subsequent email. “Although the original restoration deadline stipulated in the NOIE was Oct. 15, 2020, we granted the Town a deadline extension through October 31, 2021. There is still ample time for them to respond to our review comments with a revised restoration plan and at least start the required restoration before the deadline expires.”
Public works director Mattscheck said in a June 28 interview that Exeter responded to the 2019 NOIE within the initial period provided by DEM. The town then submitted a plan addressing the points listed in the enforcement notice and hired engineering and environmental consulting firm Tighe & Bond of Westfield, Mass.
After the town’s restoration plan was submitted in fall 2020, Exeter did not receive a response from DEM until the spring of this year, Mattscheck said, noting the coronavirus pandemic may have caused a delay.
“We have done our work. We submitted a plan,” said Mattscheck, refuting any suggestion his department is “ignoring” DEM.
Mattscheck stressed Exeter public works has not made any significant alterations to the disputed area in the past 40 years, noting that the crossing identified in the NOIE has always been there.
“We haven’t changed the topography of the land at all,” Mattscheck said.
He said the response from DEM to Exeter’s proposal submitted last year included “a dozen or so” comments bringing up new issues not included in the original violation notice.
The town and DEM are now in the process of going “around and around” as they trade written comments, prompting Mattscheck to request an in-person meeting to address concerns on both sides, he said.
“We need to get this straightened out. I think a face-to-face would help,” said Mattscheck, who noted the meeting has not been scheduled but could result in an additional extension for the town to enact its plan.
Town Council President Dan Patterson and members Calvin Ellis and Frank Maher each noted the issue is on the agenda of the council’s next scheduled meeting July 6, which will be open to public attendance and streamed online.
Join the DiscussionView Comments
Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.
Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.