1. Is it true that Rhode Island has new freshwater wetland regulations?

New freshwater wetland regulations took effect on July 1, 2022. These new rules are now governing both the DEM and CRMC freshwater wetland programs. I like to say that the old rules employed a "one size fits all" approach. Once properly delineated, all swamps, marshes, ponds, and bogs had a standard 50-foot buffer zone.

Under the new regulations, the buffer zone is set on a "sliding scale" based on:

  • Where the property is located in the state.
  • The type of wetland present (i.e., swamp, marsh, pond, bog).
  • The actual size of the wetland.

The buffer zone can range from 25 to 100 feet from the delineated edge of the wetland. The best advice I can offer on this is to not spend time and money planning a new project until you have determined whether you are within a freshwater wetland buffer zone.

2. My land is only wet in the spring, otherwise it is dry as a bone. How can it be wetland?

I often have to explain the oxymoron "dry wetland" to property owners. Land can be classified as wetland even if there is never standing water present. The regulations define a wetland as having a predominance of wetland indicator plant species and seasonal high groundwater elevation at or near the surface for a significant period of time during the growing season. Therefore, simply having high ground water levels, with dry surface, may create conditions that support a regulated wetland.

Vegetation growing on a wetlands property in Rhode Island

3. Can NRS prepare all of the documents needed to submit to the DEM for a wetland permit?

Unfortunately, no. It requires a team of professionals to prepare the information needed for a DEM wetland application. The first step is for NRS to establish a proper wetland delineation. A land surveyor usually follows to locate our wetland flagging and collect data to prepare an existing conditions plan. For a simple house layout and septic system, NRS and the surveyor will be able to prepare the necessary plans and reports. For more complicated projects, or if crossing a wetland is required to access the developable area, it's necessary to add a professional engineer to the team, as well.

4. Can you look at the property I'm interested in before I make an offer?

NRS can only access property for a wetland site inspection or delineation if the landowner has granted permission. If you are able to retain permission from the owner prior to making an offer on the land, then NRS can do the wetland inspection. Otherwise, we're not able to do so.

5. What's the difference between a site inspection and a wetland delineation?

A site inspection doesn't establish a firm wetland boundary for the client. Normally, the land is walked, and on-site wetlands are located. From there, an approximate wetland limit is mapped using a handheld GPS unit. The mapping is not meant to reflect a final wetland edge, and in fact, once a full wetland delineation is performed, the edge may well differ from the initial site inspection mapping.

6. The runoff from the street / my neighbor's property / the subdivision next door has caused my land to be wet!

The DEM wetland regulations do not differentiate between a "naturally occurring" wetland or wetland that has developed as a result of directed stormwater runoff. While street drainage is most often directed into existing wetlands, sometimes it can cause a wetland to develop over many years. If that happens, it is now a regulated resource area.

Storm drainage water that has created a wetland in Rhode Island

7. I want to knock down and rebuild my coastal home without expanding the footprint - does the CRMC have any authority over this?

The CRMC has regulatory authority over all land use activities that occur within 200 feet of a regulated coastal feature. One important rule to understand: If your home is located within the CRMC setback, usually 50 feet on property with lawn extending out to the shoreline, you will not be able to rebuild the house in the same location. The CRMC regulations will require you to move the house landward to meet the minimum 50-foot setback.

8. My home is more than 200 feet from the high tide line, so I don't need a CRMC permit to demolish and rebuild the dwelling, right?

The CRMC regulatory jurisdiction is drawn from the limit of any coastal "shoreline" feature and not the high-tide line of the ocean, the waters of Narragansett Bay, or any tidal pond or stream. You need to have the coastal feature properly delineated before you can determine if your project requires a CRMC permit.

9. I want to clear out the weeds in my pond - will that make it healthy again?

When this question comes up, I tell people that every pond wants to be a marsh when it grows up. Over time, small ponds accumulate organic matter, which eventually allows for emergent vegetation to colonize the shoreline. The emergent vegetation dies back each year, adding more organic soil below the waterline. Given enough time, the entire pond will become marsh, which is actually more valuable as wildlife habitat than open water.

10. Why can't I add boulders to my beach to stop the shoreline erosion like my neighbor has?

Sea level rise is causing more erosion for coastal property owners. However, the CRMC discourages what is termed "structural shoreline protection" measures, such as adding large boulders to the waterfront. The regulations require coastal property owners to first try non-structural techniques, such as planting shrubs, to mitigate the effects of erosion. As for your neighbor, in all likelihood their boulder revetment was in place prior to the CRMC regulations and is a grandfathered feature.

Coastal properties in RI with boulders to stop beach erosion

11. Is it true that I can't build a dock if I have eelgrass?

The CRMC regulations do not prohibit dock construction within an eelgrass bed. However, there are specific design criteria that the engineer must follow to ensure enough light is allowed to penetrate the water beneath the new dock to sustain the growth of the eelgrass. The regulations do not allow a float or boat lift to be installed over an eelgrass bed.

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