No winners in Little Compton wetlands war
LITTLE COMPTON — They’ve a judge’s order in hand saying they have every right to build a house on their five acres at 645 West Main Road. But after devoting nearly two decades and a half million dollars to the fight, Fred and Louise Williams now intend to walk away from what was to have been their Little Compton retirement home. It all finally became too much. Vilified for their efforts to build a “swamp house” (as it was called at meetings, the coffee shop and in the press — this newspaper included), they say it is time to move on.Both say the struggle left them exhausted — emotionally and financially— and disillusioned by town and state politics and a system they have come to believe makes up rules as it goes. And, much as they still love Little Compton’s natural beauty, they say they no longer wish to force themselves on neighbors, some of whom did their utmost to keep them out. “We kept with it for so many years and at such great expense not only because we wanted a house in Little Compton, but also because we didn’t want our case to set a precedent that the state could deny a citizen the ability to build a house for his own use on his own five acres,” Mr. Williams said. “I think Little Compton is a town for someone else,” adds Ms. Williams. To that end, they have put their lot up for sale ($349,000) and have refocused retirement plans on their home in Maynard, Mass. Unable to find a Little Compton firm to represent them, they turned to a Tiverton broker. For all the unhappy memories, they visit Little Compton from time to time — “We still think this is one of the world’s beautiful places” — and they enjoy the company of friends made here. One even lets them use his seaside house; they say he feels badly about the treatment they received. They stop by their lot sometimes for a look around. Their realtor urges them to cut the grass out front. “But we don’t dare do that for fear that a complaint will be filed,” Ms. Williams said. Their opponents’ opinions have been reported extensively (here and elsewhere). Far less attention, they say, has been focused on their side of the episode. Fine place to retire Although careers took them to Pittsburgh and then to Massachusetts, the Williams have East Bay ties — his parents had a place in Bristol and they had friends in Little Compton. After renting in Little Compton for 12 summers and becoming attached to the place, “we wanted to build a modest house for our family’s use.” When they saw a 5.2-acre lot available on West Main near to where they had rented and close enough to the beach for the family to ride by bicycle, they bought it in 1986 for $78,000. They were assured that at least two sections of the property were plenty dry and large to build on — one in the northeast corner along West Main (where they ultimately did opt to build), and another near the south boundary. The property had already passed percolation and water table tests “which was the go or no-go standard for building a house at the time.” Before closing on the property, they took the added step of having an individual sewage disposal system designed and approved after a site visit by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) — they still have the signed document in their voluminous files. “You can’t do any more on property you don’t own. We used professional people and went the extra step.” In 1988, town building permit in hand, they started construction. “Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Williams (has) permission to construct a new single family residence as per application and plan” states the permit signed by the town’s alternate building official. That November, they put in a foundation and septic system (per the plan the DEM had approved). A few weeks later in December, components for the Acorn modular house they had contracted to build were delivered. And that very day, direct from DEM, came a cease and desist order. They were building on wetlands, the order stated. They must immediately remove the foundation and septic system and restore the property to its condition as of 1971. “We were stunned,” Ms. Williams said. “Horrified.” “Nobody had said anything up until then,” all through the permitting process and “even while the foundation and septic system were going in … We had all of our building materials sitting out there in the rain under a tarp and now an order to get rid of it all. We didn’t know what to do.” They hired an attorney who assured them that with the permits they had obtained, all should be set right soon. A timeline they have kept of the next decade’s ordeal says otherwise. The attorney asked DEM for a hearing at which the couple might defend themselves. “They kept delaying and dragging their feet,” Ms. Williams said. Finally, a Superior Court Judge ordered DEM to give the Williams that hearing. In 1990, the hearing was held and the hearing officer ruled that the violation should be dismissed. The DEM director overturned the hearing officer’s ruling. The Williams appealed but lost in Superior Court and the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. “So in 1994 we had no choice.” They hired a local contractor who dug up and removed the foundation and septic system. And they restored the land as DEM ordered. This included planting 200 trees and bushes — among them red maples and high bush blueberries. “We were out of money and our hearts were broken,” Ms. Williams said. Stuck with land they seemingly could not use, they looked into building on the southwest side but found that site hemmed in by restrictions placed on boundaries and access alongside Reservation Road. Their hopes were revived when, by 2002, the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council had gained wetlands jurisdiction. They hired a lawyer to seek CRMC approval to build. Based on his optimism, they opened their wallets again for approvals, variances, biologists and an engineer. But little had changed. Many times they’d drive down from Maynard to find that the CRMC meeting had been called off for lack of quorum. And when hearings were held, they found that they faced organized opposition — Conservation Law Foundation, Sakonnet Preservation Association, Save The Bay and more. Media events were staged. At one, an environmental leader told reporters that the Williams had put in a foundation and septic system without permission. “It was all stated and reported as fact. Nobody asked us if we had the permits,” Mr. Williams said. “If they had we would have gladly shown them —stamped, signed, paid for.” A local official called the place a swamp with 18 inches of standing water. It is mostly good, dry former cow pasture, Ms. Williams said. “I grew up on a farm. I know what dry pasture looks like … Had this land been wet, we never would have bought it in the first place.” After calling on the Williams to shrink their house plans several times, move the house closer to the road and then agree to an easement giving up rights to 96 percent of their land (they say they won’t ever agree to that), the CRMC ultimately rejected the Williams’ plan. Explaining his vote, a Little Compton resident serving on the CRMC said that he saw mosquitos here and “I don’t like mosquitoes.” “How do you argue with that logic?” Ms. Williams asked. The Williams appealed yet again in 2008 and this time came away with a victory. Not only did the CRMC fail to include findings of fact to support its decision, Judge Daniel Procaccini ruled, but the council action was “arbitrary and capricious.” “The CRMC repeatedly encouraged the appellants to reduce the footprint” of the house “in an effort to minimize wetlands disturbance … After leading appellants down that path, the council then used the … final revised proposal, which featured a ‘significant reduction’ in footprint size, as a basis to declare that insufficient setbacks in the final proposal mandated denial.” The victory is “bittersweet” Mr. Williams said. Above all, he said he hopes it helps keep others from enduring what they went through. Among many things that have puzzled them, he said, is why state and town came down so hard on their project while others, including houses up and down West Main from their lot, pass without objection. “Why are we treated so differently than anyone else?” Maybe it’s because they were resented as outsiders, they say. Or perhaps, as former US Attorney General Janet Reno (a college friend of Ms. Williams and one of her bridesmaids) suggested, “Your builder didn’t pay off the right people.” “I have no street smarts,” Mr. Williams said. “We don’t know how to behave that way.” Along the way, they say they encountered a state system that seems “accustomed to bullying people who dare to question it.” They wonder, “Why had the DEM never given a hearing on an alleged wetlands violation in 17 years since the law was written” until being ordered to do so by a judge. “And then the director overturned the hearing officer anyway — it was a kangaroo court where we stood no chance.” They said that director later told a Senate hearing that she had overturned ten of ten hearing officer rulings that went in favor of the appellant. “We have been portrayed as evil people who don’t care about wetlands, the environment,” Ms. Williams said. “Of course we care about wetlands but we have learned that there is no real standard for what makes wetlands … wetlands are where certain people say they are. We just want to see the rules applied fairly.” They wish the best for their property’s next owner. “We hope they live happily there and enjoy this beautiful town,” Mr. Williams said. Adds his wife, “For us, life is too short.”
With the project at a stand-still after a stop-work order, Louise Williams visits the house site before the decision was made to remove the foundation.