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Monday, July 25, 2011

Crying Wolf

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) and its members on the Town Council, Tom Gentz and particularly Dan Slattery, have been continuing to tout the threat of two failed pieces of legislation in the General Assembly, H-5554 and S-533.

These bills (essentially a House and Senate version of the same bill) are BAD bills that would change zoning laws across the state to allow some unsavory practices, such as building on slopes up to 45 degrees and requiring less than one acre zoning.

At the July 11 Council meeting, these bills were discussed as though they represented a present and on-going threat.

Council member Dan Slattery said it was a close call in the recently concluded General Assembly session and that the Senate had actually passed the Senate version of the bill.

The Council voted to send a letter to Governor Lincoln Chafee, urging him to veto this legislation if and when it reaches his desk.

But how much of a threat does this legislation pose now or in the near future?

Let’s dispose of one issue of fact. Contrary to Mr. Slattery’s alarming statement that the Senate version (S-533) passed, this bill, like its House counterpart, never got out of committee.

Mr. Slattery, CCA’s past President, apparently missed CCA’s July 3 e-bulletin that plainly stated the two bills never made it out of committee.

But contrary to the CCA’s claim that it was “hundreds of your e-mails” that killed the bills, the bills were pretty much dead before the first alarm went out.

NOTE: CCA’s July 3rd e-mail also made the completely false claim that this legislation was “locally promoted heavily in an e-mail blog associated with the Democratic Town Committee.” (1) We never promoted the legislation, ever. (2) While PC founders Ferrio and Collette are members of the Democratic Town Committee, their opinions are their own, not the committee’s – and the CCA knows this. Enough with the distraction – now back to the issue at hand.

On June 21st, Hopkinton Town Council President Sylvia Thompson sounded the first bugle call about this legislation. But by then, the threat was effectively over. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill were already bottled up in committee. The Senate Housing and Municipal Government Committee held a hearing on May 10th, did not vote on the bill and took no further action.

The House Municipal Government committee was scheduled to hold a hearing twice. The first time, the hearing was postponed. On June 8, the second scheduled date for a hearing, the committee decided instead to “hold [H-5554] for further study.”

According to General Assembly sources, there were other factors that made passage of the legislation unlikely.

First, the bills were sent to the wrong committees. Land use issues belong in the House and Senate Environment Committees, not the Municipal Government committees.

If the bills are sent to the right committee next time, the House version will face our own Rep. Donna Walsh, vice-chair of the House Environment Committee. She told me she is strongly opposed to the bill content.

The error in sending the bills to the wrong committees may be due to the lack of experience both sponsors have with environmental issues. Senate sponsor Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) chairs the Senate Judiciary and mainly introduces bills related to the justice system.

The House sponsor, Rep. William San Bento (D-Pawtucket) is mostly known for his advocacy of expanded gambling at Twin River. San Bento also holds the dubious distinction of having the highest absentee rate in the House, missing a total of 15 days of the session. That translates into missing an entire month of the General Assembly. San Bento told he missed so much time because he was “busy” and had decided to take a vacation in May.

McCaffrey and San Bento did collaborate on one piece of legislation that passed and was signed by the Governor. That legislation granted a two year extension to DEM permits that were expiring in 2011. However, that legislation did not have anywhere near the scope and complexity of their zoning bill.

I also chased down a persistent rumor that, in addition to the Rhode Island Builders Association, the zoning bills were supported by Grow Smart Rhode Island, a respected environmental group that opposes urban sprawl and supports smart development. I asked Grow Smart RI if it was true (answer: no) and for their opinion of the bills. Grow Smart Research Director John Flaherty told me “I’m vaguely familiar with it, but frankly not familiar enough to tell you where we’d stand,” other than to say they had no opinion.

There are more than enough real issues and serious challenges in our town, state and nation without the need to make things up.

Author: Will Collette