Administration defends decision on garage permit

Administration defends decision on garage permit

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton and Building Inspector Robert Benoit responded this week to criticism from residents who feel that the town should not have issued a building permit for a proposal to build a 40-by-80-foot tin garage in an area too close to wetlands on Woonsocket Hill Road.

The owners of the property where the garage was supposed to be built have received a notice from the Department of Environmental Management stating that the work done on 5,500 square feet of land in preparation of erecting the structure violates wetlands law.

Hamilton and Benoit said this week that the responsibility to comply with DEM falls to the property owner.

"He was aware that he had wetlands on his property," said Benoit of owner Paul Lavallee. "We do not enforce it."

But residents and one Town Council member continued to question the town's process at the board's meeting on Monday.

"Can you answer a question?" asked Councilor Paul Zwolenski. "If you see something - if you notice a wetlands violation, are you required by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to tell them that there's a wetland violation?"

Benoit responded "As DEM said long ago, building officials do not know what wetland is, and to keep our nose out of it. That's what they told us a long time ago. However, if I do see a violation, I will notify them."

Hamilton pointed out that Lavallee was issued a Freshwater Wetlands Act Information Sheet when he filed the application, which explains the importance of preservation.

"That sheet clearly states that neither the building inspector nor the DEM's Individual Sewerage Disposal System section personnel have the authority, or are qualified, to determine whether wetlands are present on your property. You should make an application to the Freshwater Wetlands Department of DEM," Hamilton said.

The sheet, she said, goes on to explain the consequences of violating the Wetlands Act.

"The building inspector acted properly in his capacity to issue a permit, as the owner stated that they were aware of the wetlands and had hired a company to flag their property, to avoid wetlands intrusion," Hamilton said.

Zwolenski also questioned why the option "not applicable" was checked off on the town's building compliance checklist.

Benoit responded that the town's checklist applies to a vacant lot, where the building owner is unaware of DEM issues.

"The existing structure was already there and the owner was aware that there were wetlands on the property, so he did not have to initial it," Benoit said.

The administrator said that since the problem has been brought to light, the town has modified the form.

"Since this issue, we're going to solve that problem," Benoit said.

Zwolenski seemed to remain doubtful.

"I just find it a little weird that it was 'not applicable' because we had a form that applied to only vacant property - all these years," said Zwolenski.

Hamilton reassured the councilor that the town was not at fault.

"We didn't violate any legal issues by authorizing the permit," she said. "I think it was good that we talked about this because we can always better the process."

"We will work more closely with them," she said of DEM. "We will continue to follow the letter and intent of the law during my administration."

The owners of the property have been given until Sept. 15 to restore wetlands damaged on the property. They have also applied to build a smaller garage in an area further back on their property.

Hamilton and Benoit said the new permit will not be approved until the situation with DEM is rectified.