NORTH SMITHFIELD – After multiple two and three-hour-long meetings at which residents and business owners questioned various elements of a water protection ordinance crafted by the town’s Water Supply Review Committee, the Town Council approved the recommended changes in a split 3-2 vote on Monday, Dec. 18.
Following the latest extensive debate this week, Solicitor David Igliozzi pointed out that for the most part, the new ordinance simply reestablishes previous boundaries to North Smithfield’s Water Supply Overlay District, an area deemed important to protection of the town’s water supply. The district is governed with additional regulations from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, but the map was changed in 2020, exempting certain commercial and industrial lots.
Proponents at the time said the new map would help to make the town more business friendly by removing the added level of scrutiny from certain development projects.
The map change was passed by the Town Council at a time when meeting attendance was limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic and came into question last year, when Central Street business Material Sampling Technology presented an expansion proposal to erect a 23,000-square-foot building in a primarily residential neighborhood. The business, which has done precious metal reclamation on a neighboring lot since 2011, purchased the adjacent land just months after the 2020 change. Wetlands cover around two-thirds of the lot, surrounded by residential land serviced by individual wells, and the property was included in the water protected zone previous to the map changes.
The resulting opposition from neighbors put a spotlight on the changes, leading Councilor Douglas Osier to call for a review of the town’s water protection laws. As a result, the Water Supply Review Committee was formed in December of 2022, and has since consulted with state and federal regulators, as well as environmental experts to draft changes.
The committee also reached out to the local business community, and while all involved agree the meetings overall marked a positive and collaborative process, business owners have still questioned the need for what they see as an added level of bureaucracy.
“We’ve made millions of dollars of investment in this town, and we’ve bought a lot of property,” said Jason Jarvis, owner of Industrial Drive business New England Truck Solutions, admitting he had mixed feelings on the issue. “We plan on bringing a lot more employees into this town, and those are high-paying jobs. Let’s not scare away the next business owner.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, opponents of MST’s proposal, meanwhile, have been among those speaking on behalf of the water committee’s recommended changes, at public hearings held over the last several months. Resident Christian de Rezendes, who lives directly across from the proposal, has noted that if the previous 2020 change had never been made, the project would have been subject to additional RIDEM regulations.
“This potentially compromised our health and safety in the long run,” de Rezendes said in a letter to the council presented this week, saying the 2020 revisions put business interests ahead of residents. “As of a year ago, no one at DEM even knew about this.”
de Rezendes commended the Water Board, describing their work as a, “gift to the town.”
“I could not be more grateful for their efforts and their existence,” stated the letter, read by Committee member Gail Berlinghof in his absence due to Monday’s storm. “I ask you to listen to this research and use it wisely.’
Former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, however, has been an outspoken opponent of the Water Committee’s recommendations.
“This isn’t a science-based perspective,” Ezovski said Monday. “This is a heavy-handed regulatory perspective. We can be proud of it. We can think we’re doing really great things. We’re not. We’re creating barriers for industry.”
But on Monday, Igliozzi pointed out that most discussion of the ordinance has revolved around provisions that existed before the water committee was even formed.
“What’s happened over the last year and a half is a lot of debate,” Igliozzi said, following public testimony on Monday that lasted more than two hours. “99 percent of this document is existing language.”
Osier, chairman of the Water Advisory Committee, has described the new ordinance as a checklist of state requirements, and contended that nothing in it goes beyond what’s already required by RIDEM.
“All of these rules are from DEM,” Osier said this week. “We didn’t come up with them.”
Councilors Claire O’Hara and John Beauregard pointed out one notable exception to the RIDEM regulations however, the requirement that industries hoping to build within the protected district document the direction of groundwater flow.
“It’s going to cost an applicant a ton of money,” Beauregard said. “They’re going to have to start drilling multiple wells. The cost could get astronomical.”
On Monday, Beauregard said he would join in approving the new ordinance if the provision was removed.
Water Committee member Carol Drainville pointed out that the groundwater is a recharge area for the surface water.
“The question is: how safe do we want our water to be?” Drainville said.
In talks with NRI NOW after the meeting, Berlinghof admitted that the groundwater provision exceeds RIDEM requirements. But she notes the property owners building within the district, such as those behind the recent expansion of Route 146 Auto, have simply followed town law. Berlinghof further noted that the provision is not new, but rather existed even prior to the changes in 2020. She also pointed out that in some ways, the new ordinance is less restrictive than the previous, applying exclusively to businesses that deal with hazardous chemicals.
The ordinance was approved in a 3-2 vote with dissent from O’Hara and Beauregard.