NORTH SMITHFIELD – The Town Council could put a 60 day halt on new proposals for development over aquifers and aquifer recharge zones in North Smithfield over concerns that changes to the town’s map and the ordinance protecting the areas were rushed through by officials in 2020.
Councilor Douglas Osier requested the pause to review the town’s water protections at the council’s meeting on Monday, Dec. 5. Solicitor David Igliozzi has agreed to draft a proposed moratorium for vote at the board’s next regular meeting scheduled for Monday, Dec. 19.
“When the map was changed, it was quick,” Osier said. “There were projects waiting in the wings. I cautioned that we should be thinking more long-term of potential impacts down the line.”
Questions regarding changes to the town’s aquifer map recently came up during hearings over metal processer Material Samples Technology’s proposal to expand their operations on Central Street. The business’s request for needed zoning variances brought out extensive opposition to the project from area residents and others in November, who cited the safety of drinking water among their concerns.
Former Zoning Board member Gail Berlinghof has said the lot where MST has proposed building a new 23,000-foot structure is marked over an aquifer in the town’s 2019 map, prior to the changes. Zoners ultimately denied MST’s requests.
Osier, who was a member of the Town Council when the vote for the amendment was cast in 2020, noted the initiative began because officials said they had trouble reading the town’s old aquifer map.
“That evening I was shocked that I was the only council member at the time to vote against those changes,” he said. “I’m still kind of shocked that they were made.”
The councilor noted that Industrial Drive was among the areas most affected by the changes .
“There’s no doubt that we need commercial revenue to help ease the burden on the taxpayers,” Osier said. “The one thing I can’t support, is doing at expense of homeowners’ well being, especially when the town has a terrible track record with water issues. A resident should never have to worry if their water is safe.”
A review of the amendment to Section 6.19, the zoning ordinance governing the town’s Water Supply Protection Overlay District, was also supported by Councilor John Beauregard, who noted last week that the council’s first step should be to hire an expert to advise them on the issue.
“Water is very complicated,” Beauregard said.
“Water is the most important thing. There’s no question,” he added, noting that still, “we should not go forward without an expert to tell us how the process works. We have to understand when we say ‘no’ to someone why we’re saying ‘no.'”
Osier said councilors should also look at the town’s processes for notifying residents of potential projects. Currently, the notifications are sent to those owning property within 200 feet of the request.
“This should be done in collaboration with the business community as well as residents,” said Osier. “It’s about a balance.”
Osier noted that many towns take a more pro-active approach to water safety, even posting signs marking watershed protection zones.
“Two hundred feet is not that far,” he said. “We need to make sure things are done responsibly. We need to protect that basic resource.”
Former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski objected to the characterization that the 2020 ordinance changes were rushed.
“The idea that the changes to that groundwater protection map were made carelessly or with some haste is unfair, at best” said Ezovski, who was serving as administrator at the time, noting that he’s qualified as an expert in groundwater resources and a professional engineer. “I’m proud of what I’ve done in that area. These are not simple concepts.”
“If we are wealthy in any area, it is in terms of water resources,” Ezovski said, of North Smithfield, noting there’s an area in town with potential to produce five million gallons of water a day, every day, forever.
The water protection overlay zone, Ezovski said, was meant to protect such large-scale resources.
“Now, what’s happening is, the ordinance is being interpreted as a law to protect every individual well,” he said. “All we’re doing is creating a burden. If anything we need more businesses, in our industrial park not less. I urge caution. I think what was done in 2020 was prudent.”
But Berlinghof said she believes the town should hold manufacturers to a higher standard when it comes to protecting water, adding that North Smithfield may need more than one building inspector.
“I really don’t think that one person can do the whole job for this town,” she said. “The town is growing.”
Osier said the review could lead to additional safeguards, such as more testing requirements for businesses with hazardous materials.
“I really want to be comprehensive with it, to make sure we’re doing the best for the residents and the businesses,” he said. “This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. There may be nothing that comes from this.”
“It’s strengthening and tightening in areas that need to be tightened to ensure everybody’s well being,” he added.
Igliozzi is expected to draft a resolution for a 60 day moratorium on all applications in the overlay district before building and zoning, which Osier noted could be expanded if needed.
“It does seem to me that what you’re going to need, sooner rather than later, is advice from an expert,” Igliozzi said.