A plan to re-work Warren’s wetlands regulations received a cool reception before the Warren Planning Board Monday night, as part of it received sharp criticism from both board members and the public during a two and a half hour meeting at Warren Town Hall.
The changes come as Warren tries to comply with state Department of Environmental (DEM) mandates that Warren’s residents, particularly in unsewered areas of Touisset and the Highlands, use nitrogen-reducing systems to treat their wastewater and build new systems no closer than 150 feet from wetlands, water bodies and streams. The regulations also seek to increase Warren’s buffer zone for all development adjacent to wetlands and the water. Currently, the buffer is 50 feet, but the re-worked regulations would increase that to 100 feet.
The planning board must give a recommendation on whether to accept or reject the proposed changes, and send it to the Warren Town Council for the final say. Board members said Monday that while much of the plan sounds reasonable, the plan to increase that buffer from 50 to 100 feet does not.
Warren Town Planner Caroline Wells suggested the 100-foot buffer several months ago during ongoing negotiations with DEM on the nitrogen issue, and she said the 100-foot threshold is based on DEM’s “best management practices” and is also a buffer used in many towns in Massachusetts, and several in Rhode Island.
But planning board members and close to a dozen audience members questioned the science behind it, saying there isn’t enough information to support a two-fold increase in the town’s development buffer. Such a change would be “onerous,” board chairman Fred Massie suggested. Many of his fellow board members, and the public, agreed.
The problem, several said, is that the 100-foot rule would apply to all wetlands in town, regardless of their location, sensitivity and susceptibility to pollution from nearby sources.
“It seems like this is one size fits all,” board member Brandt Heckert said. “I would say that in some cases it’s too much, and in other’s it’s not enough.”
“What I would like to see is a process that is not onerous,” Mr. Massie said. “In some cases, if we’re treating some wetlands as if they’re all the same, that would be onerous.”
Several audience members spoke about what the proposed changes would mean to them and countless others, predicting the town could suffer financial consequences if the changes go through as is.
Vernon Street resident Robin Remy said the 100-foot buffer would effectively strip a third of the value from the Wightman’s Farm land she and her family owns at 520 and 536 Metacom Ave.
The land is dotted with areas of wetlands, and while Wightman’s Farm LLC plans to build 30 to 36 house lots on the property, increasing the buffer would necessitate reducing that number by at least a third, she said. It would also force partners to expend untold thousands in new legal, engineering and architectural fees as they re-work the plan to comply with the new setback.
“If this ordinance passes, you are in effect devaluing our property,” she said. “We would expect the town to compensate us for this loss. We would also ask for a lower tax assessment. There is a lot of domino effect when you start devaluing people’s property.”
Ms. Remy received a hearty round of applause from the audience as she finished speaking and left the podium.
The change would also affect John Saviano, who lives at 56 Schoolhouse Road and several years ago bought a swath of land at 50 Schoolhouse with thoughts of developing several house lots there. He figures that the new regulations would force him to reduce the number of lots from five to three.
“It would be an economic hardship,” he said.
He also asked why the onus is on Warren to solve the problem of polluting runoff. Much of it flows over the land and in the water from Massachusetts, he said.
“What about pollution coming over the border from Massachusetts? Why should the people of Warren be so responsible for cleaning up our area when the discharge coming from Massachusetts is something we have no control over?”
“By recommending this (change), what you’re doing is putting a hardship on the people in Warren. These people can’t afford it.”
Ms. Wells was called to defend the 100-foot buffer several times throughout the night, and she said the number, while not precise, was based upon the best information available in the region and is becoming a widely accepted buffer in wet areas. Coming up with more precise information about the nature of each wetland in town, and determining what buffer to apply to each, is beyond the scope of the town’s ability, she said. Bottom line, she said, is that changes need to be made to reduce pollution.
“Every analysis I do points to our impaired waters,” she said. “We need to make affirmative steps to address water quality.”
In the end, board members voted unanimously to meet again next month to further discuss the proposed changes. In the meantime, they said, they’d like to see the town work on amendments to the 100-foot buffer section of the ordinance.
“It seems parts B and C (which deal with nitrogen reducing systems and building systems within 150 feet of a wetland) make sense,” Mr. Massie said.
However, the 100-foot development buffer “needs to be worked on so that it better defines what specifically would be considered a sensitive area versus one that is able to be altered without creating an undue hardship.”