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An open, transparent process in Charlestown

I offer my opinion for consideration regarding the Charlestown Subdivision Ordinance. Unfortunately, information in recent letters (Ed: for example here and here) oversimplifies the situation and, at worst, provides completely inaccurate statements masquerading as facts.

At multiple public and advertised council meetings, potentially amending the subdivision language was discussed, and the Planning Commission was first asked for an advisory opinion on the concept. Therefore, statements such as “Making changes to this ordinance was authorized quietly by the Town Council” … “the rewrite was done in private” … “with no public input” are factually incorrect and gross misrepresentations of the current council’s open meetings and discussions.

The council held a special meeting on June 1 to have a public discussion among councilors regarding potential amendments to our current subdivision ordinance. A draft was presented, which aimed to blend the past ordinances from the last 23 years with the changes made in 2022, despite the 2022 amendment facing significant opposition. This draft is a starting point to determine what changes may be necessary and prudent and, therefore, be introduced.

Most of the language presented in the draft remained the same as in past versions. However, one proposed deviation includes “constraints to development” land as part of the required open space on the parcel. In other words, currently, if you have a 50% open space requirement, and your land consists of 50% “constraints to development,” which is inherently open space, none can be counted towards the open space. Consequently, the owner would be required to allocate 50% of the remaining land, meaning three-quarters of the total parcel would be designated as open space.

Discussion at the special meeting included whether some or all of the restricted land can count toward the open space requirement, which is no radical idea. Several other towns in Rhode Island with Conservation Design Subdivisions allow some of the constrained lands to count.

Some argue that this change alone would harm our groundwater, aquifer, and the environment we value in Charlestown. However, this assertion relies more on fearmongering than facts. All existing environmental and groundwater protections, as established by state and federal laws, DEM rules and regulations, and local regulations, will remain in place. Wetlands and other restricted lands will continue to be safeguarded and kept free from development.

Groundwater protection and management is a complex issue that cannot be adequately addressed by solely designating open space on “developable or undevelopable” land. It depends on factors such as soil composition, lot topography, surface characteristics, groundwater flow rates, wastewater system plumes, and many other variables that require expertise beyond my own to determine or opine on.

However, through these discussions, the council can consider all perspectives, amend drafts, seek information, propose a comprehensive amendment to the zoning ordinance and schedule a public hearing when all factors are thoroughly evaluated.

One letter even labeled this open process “outrageous.” I would argue that this council fulfills its elected duty by participating in discussions and debates, considering facts from multiple sources, and being open to adjusting ideas and direction when new information emerges.

As always, I urge you to watch the videos of the council meetings and see the discussions taking place.

Stephen J. Stokes, Charlestown The writer is a member of the Charlestown Town Council.

This article was first published at a Letter To the Editor in The Westerly Sun on June 13, 2023

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