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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Dan McKee drains the swamp, but not in a good way

McKee's chief of staff gets DEM approval to develop wetlands area, despite town objection

DEM Gives Governor’s Chief of Staff Go-Ahead to Develop Wetlands in Flood-Prone Cumberland Neighborhood

By BRIAN P. D. HANNON/ecoRI News staff 

This piece of property on Canning Street in Cumberland, R.I., contains freshwater wetlands, and the town has objected to its proposed development. (Brian P. D. Hannon/ecoRI News)

State environmental officials have given a green light to a planning proposal by the governor’s chief of staff to develop a small piece of suburban property located on freshwater wetlands.

Tony Silva, McKee's chief of staff (Valley Breeze)
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) approved the development at 45 Canning St. by Tony Silva, chief of staff to Gov. Dan McKee, in a decision issued in early June.

Wedged between two adjacent homes and mowed lawns on the quiet street, the slice of property is overgrown with trees covering the view of the wetland surface beneath.

When Cumberland officials were first made aware that the project was being considered by DEM, the town’s planning director, Jonathan Stevens, wrote in a Nov. 22, 2019 letter to the state agency that the applicant proposes a wetland disturbance of at least 5,196 square feet, or 93 percent of the entire 5,600-square-foot lot.

“The proposed ratio of disturbance to lot size is extremely excessive and unreasonable,” Stevens wrote.

The planning director also noted the chronic flooding problems that plague this section of Canning Street. “Displacing this wetland with additional impervious surfaces stands to adversely affect downstream residential properties,” he wrote.

At the end of his letter, Stevens requested that DEM deny the application, “as granting approval will not be in the best public interest.”

In another letter to DEM five months later, Stevens noted none of the amendments to the revised application justifies the town changing its objection to the project. “The application still proposes to disturb an astonishing 93% of existing wetlands on the lot,” he wrote.

“The proposed drainage swale channel in conjunction with the pipe replacement only benefits the owner of the lot in question, whose water-saturated lot would be drained and made potentially buildable,” Stevens wrote in the April 17 letter

“The additional stormwater conveyance efficiency would have a negligible beneficial effect on the stormwater ponding and potential flooding at this Canning Street location, and an inordinately adverse impact on the adjacent lot receiving the stormwater flows at higher rate.”

The Valley Breeze, which first reported the story, reported that Gail Mastrati, DEM assistant to the director, said the agency approved a revised wetland application for the property June 3. The agency’s decision noted the plan’s updated stormwater design would not increase flooding or put neighbors at risk of additional flooding.

Mastrati said DEM found wildlife would not be “significantly harmed despite some filling of the wetland in question” and that, despite comments from neighbors and town officials, a public hearing was not required because potential flooding had been addressed by the applicant, according to The Valley Breeze story.

Michael Healey, DEM’s chief public affairs officer, told ecoRI News on July 23 that the ruling giving the developer permission to move forward at 45 Canning St. and the decision not to hold a public hearing had not changed since early June. He added that the comments made by Mastrati to The Valley Breeze remain accurate.

Following a July 21 DEM announcement that a department update of rules concerning freshwater wetlands would take effect in 180 days, Healey said the decision concerning the Cumberland property would not change as a result of the updated regulations.

“The 180-day period is to allow for predictability for projects that are being permitted now. In six months, proposed projects will have to adhere to the new rules,” Healey wrote in an email.

Silva did not respond to requests for comment from ecoRI News made through the governor’s office.

In a July 21 letter to DEM, town solicitor Kelley Salvatore noted the town strongly objected to this permit application not once, but twice.

“Despite the Town’s objection, and objections from abutters, including the one adversely effected by the additional drainage discharging onto her property, RIDEM failed to hold a hearing on this matter,” Salvatore wrote. “My office has fielded numerous requests for information regarding the process and the approval of the permit. I would also appreciate an explanation as to why the permit was approved and why a hearing was never held.”

Mayor Jeff Mutter told ecoRI News that the Town Council has hired attorney Marisa Desautel to protect the town’s interests relating to due process and the lack of a public hearing before DEM.

“I do not consider the matter closed,” he wrote in an email. “I do think RIDEM’s decision to proceed without a public hearing is not in the best interests of all involved and should be reconsidered.”