Recently, Governor Gina Raimondo signed into law legislation to establish statewide standards to bolster protections for wetlands while streamlining the permitting process during development. Before the new legislation, each municipality in Rhode Island was vested with the authority to draft and enforce their own wetlands regulations in addition to the state mandated standards. This piecemeal system resulted in overlapping and sometimes contradictory state and municipal regulations. Moreover, it allowed for significant differences in wetland regulation and enforcement across the state.
A legislative committee was initially created to study the state of wetland regulations in Rhode Island. The committee found that the lack of uniform standards across the state resulted in duplicative reviews administered by both state agencies and local governments, which burdened applicants during the permitting process. The committee also found that uniform statewide standards were needed to effectively protect freshwater wetlands, buffers and floodplains.
The new legislation received broad support from various constituencies, including the Small Business Administration, the Rhode Island Builders Association, Save the Bay and the Audubon Society. Pursuant to the new legislation, municipalities are no longer authorized to implement wetland buffers or setbacks. Instead, the Department of Environmental Management (“DEM”) and Coastal Resources Management Council (“CRMC”) are required to promulgate statewide standards for freshwater wetland buffers and setbacks by July 2016. Specifically, DEM or CRMC approval is required for “any activity within a jurisdictional area…that may alter the character of the freshwater wetland, buffer or floodplain….” However, these regulations will allow municipalities to petition either DEM or CRMC to increase the size of the uniform buffer. Procedures also will be drafted to facilitate municipal input during the permit application review process.
The new law redefines the “jurisdictional areas” that are subject to the new legislation to include freshwater wetlands, buffers, floodplains, areas subject to storm flowage and flooding as well as areas adjacent to these areas. The law also protects areas within 200 feet of the edge of a river, stream or drinking water supply reservoir and areas within 100 feet of “all other freshwater wetlands.” It is also noteworthy that the definition of a “marsh” is no longer limited to wetlands less than one acre; this will afford smaller marshes with protections that did not exist under the previous regulations.
The new law allows for a predicable regulatory scheme which promotes development across the State and also protects wetlands. These amendments will likely streamline the permitting process to give property owners and developers the certainty required to develop property in the vicinity of wetlands in a cost-effective and efficient manner.