Woonsocket's strict enforcement policies under fire
Woonsocket's strict enforcement policies under fire
WOONSOCKET - Robert Martin, a real estate broker in Woonsocket for more than 30 years, told the City Council this week he'd like to see a fundamental change in the way the city does business.
"They're not using common sense. We see this every day," said Martin. "We fight to bring people into this city and this city is not friendly across the board. There is a lack of cooperation."
The complaint was a common theme among the dozen or so contractors, homeowners, real estate brokers and investors who turned out for a City Council work session Monday night aimed at examining Water Division and Building Inspection policies and procedures.
Critics charged that the city applies some rules arbitrarily and at times hinders development with overly stringent requirements.
Martin told the story of a home he'd recently sold, where the owner had maintained the property, but had recently shut off the water, an act that triggered an additional set of city requirements.
"It was a property that was in very good condition," said Martin. "Because they considered it an abandoned property, the city required all new mechanical updating and electrical updating. It cost my buyer several thousand dollars."
In another instance, he said he was told that to sell a duplex, the building would need two water lines. Martin said he fought against the proposed requirement and won.
"This is a good example of what's coming out of your city services. When you influence people's lives this way I think you need a better explanation," he said.
Martin's stories were just some of many cringe-worthy tales where, critics claimed, the city's policies lacked the needed flexibility to encourage development.
Council member Christopher Beauchamp, who works as superintendent of the contracting company Narragansett Improvement, gave another example: the requirement for an uninvolved, licensed plumber on site for installation of new piping.
"We had to hire a licensed plumber to stand above, watch us do the work and not put one piece of pipe in the ground," said Beauchamp, adding that his company already has a drain layer's license, but the additional requirement cost them $1,400.
"That's not being business friendly. Woonsocket is one of a handful, or maybe the only one, that imposes that."
"I've done work in a lot of different towns and Woonsocket is the only place where I've had to pay a master plumber $75 an hour to stand there and learn how to do what we're doing because they've never done it before," said Richard Gentes, another contractor on hand to testify against the roadblocks he's encountered.
Residents were also critical of the city's enforcement of a policy that all water meters are raised above the level of the floor, a Department of Health requirement aimed at protecting the water supply.
"Woonsocket is the only city that requires an inspector to come and read the water meter upon sale of the property," said Martin.
"Cumberland, Lincoln, North Smithfield - the realtor or homeowner just calls it in. There are no issues with it. They're not required to upgrade it. When we go to a closing, a person that's owned a home for 50 years is required to come up with $3,500 to $4,000 to raise the water meter six inches."
Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran said that she called 12 other towns with large water systems to see if they enforced the law and that the policy was nearly uniformly used.
"Woonsocket is the only city that implements this regulation rigorously," argued Martin. "I have yet to call a water department in any other city in the state of Rhode Island - and we sell property in Jamestown, Narragansett - where an individual employee of the water department is required to come and view the water meter. It may be statute but maybe they've had the common sense to look at the spirit of the law and not whack people in this economy."
Local investor and zoning board member Roland Michaud, who recently declared his intent to run for mayor, said he's had a similar experience.
"We should not have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on houses with value that is literally plummeting right now," said Michaud.
Several speakers praised the individual city employees, emphasizing that it was the over-arching policy and attitude that needed to be examined.
Martin gave another example of his attempts to sell a prominent property in the Social District.
"We probably had six or seven potential buyers for that property. Some didn't fit and I knew that but others - let's call it a gray area. When you call the city department for advice in all instances what I've got is "fill out a zoning application and submit it to the zoning board and we'll find out if they go with it. That is not the right answer. The attitude should be maybe we can't, but let's work together," Martin said.
"There seems to be some regulations that are a little bit overbearing," said Beauchamp. "All we're looking for is some common ground to help contractors, to help realtors, to help everyone."
McGauvran and water department employee Robert Doire spent much of the night on the defensive.
"As far as enforcement, Mr. Doire has only been in the position for a year and a half, I've only been in the position for two and a half years," said McGauvran "A lot of the cases that have been brought up tonight go back as far as 2000 or earlier."
McGauvran added she has actually amended some policies in attempt to ease requirements and Doire said he is currently in the process of reviewing 200 pages of specifications for more potential updates.
Beauchamp recommended that a committee examine the policies, emphasizing that contractors should be involved in the process.
Mayor Leo Fontaine also defended his administration's record on enforcement.
"When we talk about these regulations and policies, they've been here for a long, long time. We're trying to improve things," he said.
Councilor Albert Brien explained why change needs to come quickly.
"I can tell you there is work that has taken place that in my opinion is not required and when you talk about doing economic development this is where you encounter a problem," said Brien.
"There's a huge contradiction. There are people who will come nowhere near the city of Woonsocket for fear that they will be required to spend funds that are not required in the other 38 cities and towns."