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Friday, January 14, 2022

Wetlands wait

Implementation of R.I.’s New Freshwater Wetlands Regulations Delayed Six Months

By ROB SMITH/ecoRI News staff

The freshwater wetlands buffer regions map. The new rules replace
 local zoning regulations with statewide standards. (DEM)

State environmental officials have delayed the start date for new regulations designed to protect freshwater wetlands. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) originally scheduled the rules to go into effect Jan. 15, but late last year pushed back the date to July 1.

Agency officials say they are going to use the extra time compiling new guidance, after receiving feedback from stakeholders that the new rules and definitions were confusing.

But the January start date was always in doubt. While DEM finalized its rules last summer, its partner agency, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), failed to formally adopt its version of the wetland protections before the end of the year. 

During a Nov. 9 meeting, council members voted to table it until its first December meeting, a meeting that was later canceled.

“I would like a couple weeks to explore how it impacts affordable housing,” said CRMC council member Jerry Sahagian, who made the original motion to table.

The rules split the state into two jurisdictional areas, one for CRMC and one for DEM. They replace local ordinances regarding freshwater wetlands protection in favor of statewide standards, a longtime request by developers. In most cases, buffer areas will now extend 200 feet from the edge of a river, floodplain or reservoir and 100 feet from most freshwater wetlands. DEM has estimated an additional 23,900 acres will fall under the new jurisdictions.

But all was not rosy with the changes, as stakeholder groups had a mixed reaction to the new rules. The Rhode Island Builders Association (RIBA) has claimed the rules are too restrictive, while Save The Bay has argued the rules are not protective enough of wetlands.

“We have found the balance [in the rules] because neither party is pleased with the regulations,” CRMC deputy director James Boyd told the council at its Nov. 9 meeting.

The RIBA welcomed the delayed start date.

“There has been a lot of confusion and interpretation issues that can hopefully be resolved with the new implementation schedule,” the association’s CEO, John Marcantonio, said.

“When I heard that implementation of the new wetlands rules needed to be pushed back I was surprised, but I shouldn’t be,” said Kate McPherson, riverkeeper at Save The Bay. 

“The new rules are a big change and require DEM staff to create new application forms, factsheets, and train permitting staff- all while the regular workload of reviewing permit applications doesn't stop.  We wish DEM had the staffing and resources necessary to do this important work in a more timely manner.”

CRMC has scheduled a vote to adopt the freshwater wetlands protections at its Jan. 11 meeting, with no major changes expected. The council will meet on Zoom for the first time since last year, in light of the governor’s new executive order.

Most municipalities will see an increase in buffer protection areas. A few, such as Jamestown and Little Compton, will see a decrease in their current buffer zones, from 150 feet to just 50. Municipalities can petition DEM for an increase in buffer areas, but are losing veto power originally granted to them in a previous version of the proposed rules.

Any development in these newly defined buffer areas will require a special permit, unless otherwise exempt. New exempt activities to freshwater wetlands rules now include cutting vegetation within lawns or landscape areas, cutting within floodplains outside wetlands and jurisdictional areas, and establishing new pedestrian trails outside of wetlands and their buffer zones.