Another land use sneak attack

State legislators with time on their hands or favor to curry bear watching.

One proved that true yet again recently with a Rhode Island bill (H-5192) that only a land developer could love.

The lawmaker proposes tinkering with the statute governing the regulations communities may adopt.

Towns may not, his amendment states, adopt any ordinance or rule that is more restrictive than any regulation established by the state Department of Environmental Management or Coastal Resources Management Council.

Some sharp-eyed Little Compton residents did a double-take when they spotted this gem.

With one sentence tucked deep within a state ordinance, this bill would single-handedly manage to strip towns of what little power they have left to defend their land, water supplies and, to some degree, their quality of life.

One size does not fit all when it comes to resource protection. State law typically sets minimum standards but, since situations vary dramatically from one part of a state to the next, towns need rules that fit their unique needs.

Little Compton, for instance, is a town reliant on wells that draw their drinking water from a shallow, fragile aquifer. Two-acre zoning, stringent set-back and other zoning rules are needed to protect the water supply from contaminants that would surely flow into wells if more aggressive land-use was allowed.

A different bill with similar intent surfaced last year. The oddly named ‘Dry Lands Bill’ (it really seemed aimed at letting builders push their way toward and onto wet lands) would have enabled developers to tinker with lot size calculations so as to squeeze more house lots into towns with more restrictive zoning.

It’s the same way in Westport whose abundant low, wet land surrounds a stressed river system. State rules that might work in densely populated towns with sewers and public water, don’t always fit such places.

Although mostly beaten back, these assaults on community rights never die — they just return in fresh disguise.

From tolls tucked into budgets, to these assaults on zoning, towns can’t take their eyes off the legislature for a moment.

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