By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Preserved open space in Rhode Island needs additional protections, because poachers steal rocks from stone walls and nearby residents cut down trees to improve their views.
Currently, there is no deterrent or penalty for intentionally damaging or building on land protected from development. If caught, the thief or vandal simply has to pay a portion of the value of the damaged or stolen items, such as the timber value of a cut tree.
Rupert Friday, director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, testified Jan. 18 in favor of a bill that would make such crimes a civil violation.
“The current penalties are little more than a hand slap,” Friday said. “The current penalty if you steal a stone wall and you get caught and convicted is you have to put the stone wall back. It’s pretty lucrative if you don’t get caught.”
Meg Kerr, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, said such legislation would help protect 9,500 acres of open space and wildlife habitat that Audubon owns and manages. Kerr said its common for landowners living near protected coastal areas to cut down trees on protected land to improve their views of the water.
“This legislation will provide a greater deterrence and keep people from blatantly damaging our communities’ open space and our significant investment to protect these special place,” Kerr said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill was held for further study and will likely have another hearing on Jan. 24. It's the third year in a row that the bill has been introduced. Last year, the bill passed in the House but stalled in the Senate.
The bill is modeled after a bill passed in Connecticut in 2006 that was intended to address the same problems faced by land trusts, municipalities, the state, environmental groups, and other owners and managers of open space.
In the legislation, open space is defined as any park, forest, wildlife management area, refuge, preserve, sanctuary or green area owned by one of those entities.
Damage, called encroachment, is defined as intentionally erecting structures, roads, driveways or trails. It includes destroying or moving walls, cutting trees and vegetation, removing boundary markers, installing lawns or utilities, and storing vehicles, materials and debris.
The civil fine for a violation could amount to five times the cost of the damage up to $5,000.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Cale Keable, D-Burrillville.