Johnson’s Pond Dispute Heads to Federal Court
July 29, 2022
The long-running quarrel between a private company and Coventry, R.I., residents over the water levels in Johnson’s Pond is going to court.
Soscia Holdings LLC, the company that owns and operates the dam at Flat River Reservoir, more commonly known as Johnson’s Pond, filed a lawsuit July 18 in U.S. District Court against the state of Rhode Island and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). In its filing, the company accuses state officials of violating its due process rights and illegally seizing its property, and singles out DEM for interfering in its business relationship with the town.
“Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s actions … were taken intentionally and improperly and with malice in flagrant disregard of Plaintiff’s contractual and legislatively granted rights,” Patrick Doughtery, attorney for Soscia Holdings, wrote in the filing.
Earlier in July DEM began to enforce the provisions of a law signed by the governor in late June that requires the owners and operators of a dam with more than 1,400 normal storage acre-feet of water to obtain a permit from state regulators to adjust the water levels on-site. The state environmental agency said it would promulgate rules for the permit, but in the meantime dam owners are expected to keep water in holding ponds at their “historic levels.”
There are only six dams impacted by the new legislation, including the one at Flat River Reservoir. Two are owned and managed by DEM — the dams at Olney Pond in Lincoln and Stillwater Reservoir in Smithfield. The dam at Upper Pascoag Reservoir, the biggest in terms of normal storage acre-feet of water, is owned by a dam management district operated by the town of Burrillville.
The dam at Waterman Lake in Smithfield and Glocester is run by a nonprofit. Only one other dam is operated by a private company, the Dudley Development Corporation.
DEM issued a cease-and-desist order to Soscia Holdings on July 13, ordering the company to reduce the streamflow from the pond and raise the water in the pond to spillway level.
“These low levels pose a threat to the wetlands surrounding the pond, the habitat, flora and fauna of the pond, and present a threat to recreational use of the pond, such as fishing, boating, and swimming,” David Chopy, chief of DEM’s enforcement office, wrote in the order.
As part of its lawsuit, Soscia Holdings is seeking the cease-and-desist order be overturned and an injunction imposed to prevent the state from interfering in the water levels of the pond.
The attorney general’s office will litigate the suit on behalf of the state. DEM said regardless of the lawsuit, it still expects Soscia Holdings to abide by the order, calling Johnson’s Pond “an important ecological and community asset.”
It is the second lawsuit Soscia Holdings LLC has filed against DEM over the dam’s water levels.
The dam at the reservoir dates back to the 1800s, when the General Assembly granted the Quidnick Reservoir Co. franchise and flow rights to the water. The General Assembly in 1982 made the company a private corporation. At the same time, Coventry entered into a lease over the pond, where the town agrees to pay $40,000 annually and assumes responsibility for the upkeep of the dam. The lease agreement expires in 2024.
Soscia Holdings, in 2020, quietly bought the water flow rights and the lease agreement with the town of Coventry for $1.7 million.
Following the sale, residents and homeowners along the 17 miles of the pond’s shoreline complained water levels were lower than usual, and blamed the new owners, Soscia Holdings. In February 2021, owner Doug Soscia told WJAR the water levels were lowered for safety reasons.
In April of last year, DEM issued a letter to Soscia Holdings stating there was no safety risk to the dam that would require lowering the water level. Soscia Holdings sued DEM. The controversy flowed into the Legislature this year, when lawmakers from Coventry introduced a series of bills intended to seize control of the water levels away from Soscia Holdings.
Coventry lawmakers, town officials, and residents testified in support of the bills across a series of committee hearings that went late into the night. Marc Lemoi, president of the Johnson’s Pond Civic Association, told lawmakers in April that Socia Holdings was acting irresponsibly and for financial gain.
“The private entity has a track record of draining the pond, causing problems for residents and the ecosystem on the pond,” Lemoi said.
Doughtery said legislators and municipal officials were usurping the company’s private property rights.
“You are attempting to take private rights through this bill and place them in the hands of the town of Coventry,” Doughtery said. “The town of Coventry has no right whatsoever to manage the dam or manage or monitor the control gates.”