CUMBERLAND – Members of the Cumberland Conservation Commission say now is the time to give them regulatory authority on proposed development projects.

They said during a meeting last week that if their board had more than just an advisory role before now, they could have prevented the situation that recently occurred with state approval of a home on wetlands property on Canning Street.

Chairman Joe Luca said during a meeting last Thursday, Sept. 9, that the board, with authority behind it, could have stopped the project before the town was put in a bind, providing needed checks and balances.

The Canning Street approval, where the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management approved the home proposed by Tony Silva, chief of staff to Gov. Dan McKee, over the objections of the town, became one of the state’s biggest political stories over the summer, eventually leading to the project proposed for this property that’s 93 percent covered in wetlands being called off and Silva resigning from the governor’s office over his role in trying to get construction of the home approved.

Conservation Commission members said last week that their first knowledge of what was going on with the property was when they read about it in The Breeze.

Member Erik Stoothoff said by giving the board authority on environmental issues, a project such as this one wouldn’t have the chance to reach the stage of getting people “all tied in knots.” He and Luca said that now seems like the right opportunity to give local conservation commissions the same authority they have in neighboring Massachusetts, adding the volunteer board to the mayor and Planning Board in having oversight. This entire situation could have been prevented if the Conservation Commission had simple sign-off on environmental issues, they said.

Luca said he would bring the proposal up to the Town Council and Planning Board, saying now seems like the opportune time for this move given the fact that town officials such as Council President Mike Kinch and Planning Director Jonathan Stevens have asked the Conservation Commission to help lead planned local urban reforesting efforts.

Perhaps, he said, such efforts as hiring a part-time tree warden or drafting a new tree ordinance could be used to leverage the commission’s involvement as part of a broader strategic plan for controlling the impacts of development on the environment.

If something was done incorrectly in the future, Stoothoff said, the board would have the teeth to be able to halt a project, not taking control from the Planning Board but acting as an extra layer of protection on environmental matters to “eliminate all shenanigans” and prevent anything from being done “under the cover of darkness.” He said he doesn’t see anyone being against such a move.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the town would need a state law change to give the Conservation Commission more authority.

Both the reforestry project and Canning Street debacle involved trees, said Luca, so now seems like a good opportunity to link everything together.

Member George Gettinger said the typical process before now is that the commission gives its two cents to the Planning Board, but members of the Planning Board typically end up doing what they want.

Ultimately, said members last week, adding Conservation Commission sign-off for projects would help avoid future scandals with a better system of checks and balances and a multi-point approval process built in.

The Conservation Commission is undergoing a restart of sorts as members figure out its role in the fast-developing Cumberland. Member Frank Aiello stepped down from the board for personal reasons last week, leaving members short of a required quorum, but Luca said there are several people from a local group interested in environmental matters and he planned to ask some of them if they’d be interested in the volunteer position.

The Breeze reported last year on Conservation Commission members’ efforts to better publicize what they do in conserving the town’s valued natural assets.

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While the Conservation Commission works with the Cumberland Land Trust, the Land Trust is really more focused on particular properties and the potential of acquiring them, said members at the time. The Conservation Commission is more about protecting natural resources within properties. Members have a wider focus, encouraging people to use properties in the best ways possible and to get out and enjoy the environment. The commission will inspect issues related to groundwater, stormwater drainage, and invasive species.

The commission makes recommendations to the council for the preservation of the town’s natural resources related to future development.

Member Roger Dunn mentioned at the time that conservation commissions don’t have regulatory authority as Massachusetts and Connecticut do.

The commission seeks to:

• Coordinate activities of official and unofficial bodies organized for similar purposes of ecological preservation;

• Coordinate with state and local officials for the purpose of addressing conservation issues and concerns as they pertain to the town;

• Work with the Planning Department on environmental issues and concerns relating to construction on new and existing developments within town;

• And recommend to the mayor and the Town Council programs for the better promotion, development, utilization, and preservation of open spaces, streams, shores, wooded areas, roadsides, swamps, marshland, watersheds, and all other natural areas.

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