NORTH SMITHFIELD – In November of 2020, amid Covid restrictions and an upcoming change in town leadership, the North Smithfield Town Council voted 4-1 in favor of revisions to the town’s Water Supply Protection Ordinance that proponents, including former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, said would make the law more business friendly.
The revisions to section 6.19 of the town’s zoning ordinance exempted certain commercial and industrial lots from a previously protected area, where any new plans or projects required extra levels of scrutiny, aimed at ensuring the town’s water resources were kept safe.
“The amendments strategically carve out specific parcels that contain existing industrial/commercial development,” noted a memo from the Planning Board in September of 2020 recommending the change. Areas surrounding Industrial Drive and Route 146 were exempted in an effort planners at the time said would maximize tax revenue.
Among the properties no longer a part of the town’s Water Supply Overlay District following the 2020 change was a vacant lot on Central Street, later purchased by town-based precious metal reclamation business Material Sampling Technologies. Last year, the company submitted a proposal to build a 23,600-square-foot warehouse on the property. The project drew opposition from many in the primarily residential neighborhood and was ultimately denied by members of the zoning board – a decision that has since been challenged in Rhode Island Superior Court.
The proposal – and the controversy that followed – drew attention to those 2020 revisions, which some in town have since said should never have been passed. A closer look at the issue in recent months by members of a new committee focused on protecting the town’s water resources has revealed that town officials at the time may have missed several steps legally required to pass such a change.
Councilor Douglas Osier, who cast the sole council vote against those 2020 revisions, has led an effort this year to revisit the issue, serving as chairman of the group that has examined the ordinance line by line, working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and water protection experts to ensure the town’s law mirrors state regulations.
“We were just focused on what our ordinance was and how to improve it,” Osier told members of the Town Council this week.
The committee has proposed a new revision that reverses the exemptions, instead requiring those within the town’s Water Supply Overlay District to obtain a special use permit from the Zoning Board.
“We want to be able to have a second set of eyes on it to make sure it’s not compromising drinking water,” Osier said of future projects in the protected area. “We don’t want to be closed to business. It’s responsible economic development.”
The committee’s proposal – which is tentatively scheduled for a public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 19 – is in keeping with at least some of the concerns expressed by members of the Zoning Board since the prior revisions were passed. In a letter sent to town officials in 2021, Zoning Chairman Robert Najarian describes the revisions as incomplete and documents his board’s concerns with the ordinance, pointing specifically to addition of the phrase, “with the exception of exempt industrial and commercial areas.”
“Members felt strongly that both industrial and commercial properties are the most important areas whereby the watershed should be protected,” Najarian wrote.
Osier noted this week that his committee has been unable to obtain a copy of a letter that legally should have been mailed to all abutters in the changed areas in 2020 notifying them of the proposed ordinance change prior to a vote.
“There was a potential lapse in that notification process,” Osier told NRI NOW this week.
Gail Berlinghof, a zoner who has also served on the new water committee, notes that there is also no evidence the ordinance was ever signed or codified. Efforts to locate a signed copy, Berlinghof notes, have failed, and a search of the Secretary of State’s website shows no evidence that the 2020 ordinance was submitted as required by law.
A first reading of the new proposed ordinance was held on Monday, and Councilor John Beauregard asked if the committee could meet with business owners who would be affected by the change.
“We have kind of unique situation in North Smithfield, in our industrial area,” Beauregard said. “The businesses are primarily owned by people who actually live in North Smithfield. The people that own these properties and run these businesses, they have children growing up here and drinking the same water everybody else is drinking. It’s not like they don’t care.”
Osier responded that those who hope to weigh in should attend the September meeting.
“During the public hearing, if there’s ways to strengthen that ordinance, we’re open to hear it,” he said.
And while the actions from three years ago have been at the heart of much attention, Osier notes the water advisory board is not out to condemn any possible mistakes of the past.
“That wasn’t the basis for the committee,” he later told NRI NOW. “We were very focused on the issue at hand. We said, ‘let’s just do it right this time.'”
Asked if he remembers signing the 2020 change, Osier noted that due to Covid-related restrictions, the council was not meeting in-person at the time.
“I don’t know what transpired,” he said. “I think you can learn from the past.”
He notes there are no proposed changes to the residential side of the ordinance, and that it would not affect projects that are ongoing, which are grandfathered. He said that the new language is also, “flexible enough to handle new, emergent technologies.”
“The water’s our most important resource,” Osier said. “We should be doing everything we can to protect it, while finding that balance.”