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Implementation of R.I.’s New Freshwater Wetlands Regulations Delayed Six Months

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The freshwater wetlands buffer regions map. The new rules replace local zoning regulations with statewide standards. (DEM)

 

PROVIDENCE — State environmental officials have delayed the start date for new regulations designed to protect freshwater wetlands. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) originally scheduled the rules to go into effect Jan. 15, but late last year pushed back the date to July 1.

Agency officials say they are going to use the extra time compiling new guidance, after receiving feedback from stakeholders that the new rules and definitions were confusing.

But the January start date was always in doubt. While DEM finalized its rules last summer, its partner agency, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), failed to formally adopt its version of the wetland protections before the end of the year. During a Nov. 9 meeting, council members voted to table it until its first December meeting, a meeting that was later canceled.

“I would like a couple weeks to explore how it impacts affordable housing,” said CRMC council member Jerry Sahagian, who made the original motion to table.

The rules split the state into two jurisdictional areas, one for CRMC and one for DEM. They replace local ordinances regarding freshwater wetlands protection in favor of statewide standards, a longtime request by developers. In most cases, buffer areas will now extend 200 feet from the edge of a river, floodplain or reservoir and 100 feet from most freshwater wetlands. DEM has estimated an additional 23,900 acres will fall under the new jurisdictions.

But all was not rosy with the changes, as stakeholder groups had a mixed reaction to the new rules. The Rhode Island Builders Association (RIBA) has claimed the rules are too restrictive, while Save The Bay has argued the rules are not protective enough of wetlands.

“We have found the balance [in the rules] because neither party is pleased with the regulations,” CRMC deputy director James Boyd told the council at its Nov. 9 meeting.

The RIBA welcomed the delayed start date.

“There has been a lot of confusion and interpretation issues that can hopefully be resolved with the new implementation schedule,” the association’s CEO, John Marcantonio, said.

“When I heard that implementation of the new wetlands rules needed to be pushed back I was surprised, but I shouldn’t be,” said Kate McPherson, riverkeeper at Save The Bay. “The new rules are a big change and require DEM staff to create new application forms, factsheets, and train permitting staff- all while the regular workload of reviewing permit applications doesn’t stop.  We wish DEM had the staffing and resources necessary to do this important work in a more timely manner.”

CRMC has scheduled a vote to adopt the freshwater wetlands protections at its Jan. 11 meeting, with no major changes expected. The council will meet on Zoom for the first time since last year, in light of the governor’s new executive order.

Most municipalities will see an increase in buffer protection areas. A few, such as Jamestown and Little Compton, will see a decrease in their current buffer zones, from 150 feet to just 50. Municipalities can petition DEM for an increase in buffer areas, but are losing veto power originally granted to them in a previous version of the proposed rules.

Any development in these newly defined buffer areas will require a special permit, unless otherwise exempt. New exempt activities to freshwater wetlands rules now include cutting vegetation within lawns or landscape areas, cutting within floodplains outside wetlands and jurisdictional areas, and establishing new pedestrian trails outside of wetlands and their buffer zones.

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  1. I don’t understand a couple of thing here.
    1. If buffer zones will "extend 200 feet for rivers" and "100 feet from most freshwater wetlands" why on earth will Little Compton and Jamestown buffer zones be reduced to 50 feet?

    1. Why would "cutting" need to be exempt in lawns or landscape areas (whatever those are) and floodplains that are outside of wetlands? Does that mean you can cut in the buffer zone? Also the idea that a homeowner or business can cut a landscape area to a pond or river edge seems counter productive to protection if you ask me.

    I guess I must be missing something.

    • Hello, Mr. Maietta,

      To get answers to those questions, ask the experts: RIDEM has set up a system for answering such questions. Go to the freshwater wetlands Ruels page at http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/water/permits/pn-wetland.php, and scroll down to a big blue box that says "Submit a Question Regarding the New Freshwater Wetlands Rules". Clicking on that will bring you to a form…I recommend submitting one form for each question.

  2. Greetings! And Happy New Year to the staff at ecoRI. Thank you Frank for many years of hard work and the stories that results from those efforts. CRMC deputy director James Boyd’s comments about the impossibility of universal acceptance being an indicator of good legislation is fallacy and impoverished non-sense. Where is the balance between a bulldozer and marsh? How can rivers and streams compete with the lust for a home with a water view? There is an imbalance with all legislation that seeks common ground especially when the resource has little or no chance of winning. Expecting anything more from legislation that has the guise of compromise is insanity. Having worked on defeating initial changes to RI’s wetlands laws, the new regulations have promise, but need to be more restrictive. Its important to remember that many of these "new" regulations were written nearly 6 years ago and some more than that. We have learned since these new rules came to light that climate change is more pronounced happening at a greater rate and that ecosystem services are declining and being destroyed at warp speed. State government and we continue to do business as usual and continue to destroy the very thing that keeps us alive. We have to stop. Save the Bay, Audubon, TNC, the Rhode Island Builders Association and more must move to eliminate all building next to or anywhere near wetlands especially along our coast and especially in Little Compton and Jamestown. This is the common ground the environment seeks, the one thing that we must agree on, and the one thing that is urgently needed.

  3. One of the more egregious compromises that Paul is talking about is the reduction in buffer size for certain wetland types in the newly-created urban zone. For any un-named pond, or swamp/marsh less than 1 acre, the buffer zone would be reduced to 25-feet. An obvious concession to developers who want to build on small lots where they would have been prohibited under the old regs.

    Biologists have long been making the point that 50-foot buffers were inadequate protection for many wetland-species, especially those that also occupy uplands during portions of their lives, so reducing this to 25 feet is obviously the wrong way to go. This should not be surprising given what most people understand to be the ecological value of small urban wetlands. These small patches of red maple swamp and pools of standing water, in spite of their use primarily as dumping grounds, provide refugia for a wide variety of plants and animals within highly developed areas. If anything, we should be affording greater protection to these patches of biodiversity and working to understand the resilience of species that manage to survive in the face of everything we throw at them.

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