Chipping Away at Local Control

On June 18 the Rhode Island Legislature passed another version of the so called “Dry Lands Bill” that “provides that wetland buffers not be excluded from the calculation of buildable lot areas, minimum lot sizes or in the calculation of buildable lots or units”. The new legislation will result in more house lots being created when land constrained by wetlands is subdivided; more houses near wetlands, and increased negative impacts on wetlands.

Technically, Charlestown does not subtract “buffers” when calculating the number of lots in a subdivision. We subtract all wetlands, including the “perimeter wetland” and “riverbank wetland”.

RIDEM regulations also define these areas as wetlands “Perimeter Wetland: A freshwater wetland consisting of the area of land within fifty feet (50′) of the edge of any freshwater wetland consisting in part, or in whole, of a bog, marsh, swamp or pond, as defined by these Rules. Any such freshwater wetland functions as an integrated ecological system, no portion or component of which is less worthy of regulatory protection than the wetland as a whole. Riverbank and perimeter wetlands are important integral components of the flowing body of water, or the swamp, marsh, bog, pond with which they are associated.”

The Dry Lands Bill instead calls these “buffers” and says towns can’t count them in the total area of wetlands. Apologists for the legislation say it does not change the ability to build upon or use a wetland buffer. That may be true, but it will result in more houses in close proximity to wetlands, which increases wetland impacts.

CRMC’s Coastal Pond SAMP regulations require subtraction of the perimeter wetlands when calculating the number of lots in a subdivision. This new state legislation will cause our subdivision regulations to conflict with CRMC rules.

The Environment Council of Rhode Island opposed the legislation and in March the bill was “held for further study”. Bills held for further study are generally never seen again, but the Dry Lands Bill emerged from the legislature’s study hall on June 13 and passed swiftly on June 18. Where these study sessions are held and who attends is never disclosed, but I would bet the Speaker and the Rhode Island Builders Association did most of the “studying”.

I’m grateful to Charlestown’s Representative Blake Filippi and Senator Elaine Morgan for voting against this bill that removes a bit more local control over Planning, Zoning, and the protection of Charlestown’s environment.

To see the debate on this bill, including Representative Filippi’s remarks on local control, advance the time on the video below to 24:50 minutes. If this doesn’t work for you, go to the legislature’s video site and again advance the time on the video  to 24:50 minutes.

Ruth Platner

Ruth is the current Chair of the Charlestown Planning Commission and has been involved in land use issues in Charlestown for over 20 years.