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Property rights, climate change collide over plan to build house on stilts in Narragansett

NARRAGANSETT — A controversial proposal to build a house on an undersized lot — that is nearly half wetlands and adjacent to the Narrow River — is pitting questions of property rights against neighborhood compatibility and climate change.

The case has played out for more than a year before local boards here, but its fate will ultimately be decided by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council — a state agency that has itself been mired in controversy.


“It’s not just a shame, it’s against the rules. You can’t build on wetlands,” said Victoria Hathaway, president of the 60-year-old Pettaquamscutt Terrace Improvement Association, which has fought a plan by Nicholas A. Veltri to build a house on an 8,000-square-foot lot that he didn’t own when he first pitched the plan. “All of the variances they applied for, the [regulations] are there for a reason.”

House would be built on pilings 13 feet above the ground

The plans call for a 32-by-24-foot “irregularly shaped” two-story, two-bedroom, single-family house and a 13-by-11-foot deck. It would be built on pilings 13 feet above the ground. To do so, Veltri needed several variances from the town.


Narragansett’s Planning Board unanimously rejected Veltri’s proposal 13 months ago. Veltri, who revised the plans several times after the staff at CRMC in February 2021 said it could not support his original proposal, then went to the Narragansett Zoning Board for approval the following month anyway.


After testimony on multiple nights spanning five months, the zoning board voted 4 to 1 in September to approve Veltri’s application. A majority of the board agreed with his attorney at the time, John Garrahy, that if the house were not allowed to be built, his client would lose all beneficial use of the property — even though Veltri didn’t own the land when he submitted his application.


No one besides Veltri and his hired experts spoke in favor of the plan.


'It's a flipping swamp': Owners have been trying to build on the lot for two decades

Nearly a dozen opponents countered that the land has never been suitable for building, that water floods the lot and surrounding streets during storms, and that the town should have purchased it for open space years ago.


“The main thing is the total disregard for any of the zoning rules whatsoever,” said Jim Wolcott, who bought a house in the neighborhood nearly four decades ago and uses a boat ramp — one of only two on the Narrow River — next to Veltri’s lot. “Obviously, there shouldn’t be a house there, because it’s a flipping swamp.”

After receiving zoning board approval in September, Veltri hired a new attorney: Mary B. Shekarchi, sister of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, to handle the next step with CRMC. In an email to The Hummel Report, she wrote: “At this time, [Mr. Veltri] respectfully declines to comment. As a result, I have to adhere to my client's wishes and thus, I have no comment.”


Owners of the property have been trying to build on it for more than two decades. Robert Wyss, who sold the land to Veltri last fall — right before the zoning board’s decision — submitted an application to build in 2002. The staff at CRMC issued a report that said: “It appears that the majority of [Wyss’s] lot contains wetland … therefore it would appear that the vast majority of the property falls within the required buffer zone,” which is 25 feet.

After his unsuccessful attempt, Wyss stopped paying taxes on the land and fell into arrears. But the neighbors, some of whose families have owned property dating back more than 80 years, said they had no idea because the town never put it up for tax sale. They had talked for years about making it open space.


“Just the fact that [Veltri] didn’t even own the land, it was the perfect opportunity to use federal money to pay the original owner,” said Alexis Knapp, who is a third-generation resident of a house her family built in 1935.


Knapp prepared a PowerPoint presentation with pictures that show Veltri’s lot, and surrounding land, flooding during storms or astronomical high tides.

Hathaway, the neighborhood association president, said: “This property is waterfront, it’s watershed. It’s right there. I’ve had it come right up to my house. In every big storm it comes up,” she said, adding that fish wound up in her yard during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Hathaway lives on Lakeview Drive, one street east of Veltri’s lot.


'We think he's planning to flip it'

The neighbors hired an attorney to counter Veltri’s experts at the zoning board hearing. One neighbor, who is a real estate agent, questioned how Veltri’s expert could say the proposed house would be compatible when it started 13 feet off the ground and rose to a height of 35 feet.


The neighbors also questioned Veltri’s assertion that this would be a retirement home for him, since it begins so high off the ground, and pointed out that he owns multiple properties in Narragansett.


Town records show that Veltri owns a vacant lot and three other properties, including a commercial building and a house assessed at $932,000 overlooking the water in Bonnet Shores.


“We think he’s planning to flip it,” Hathaway said.

Narrow River Preservation Association says lot is susceptible to flooding from just high tides

The Narrow River Preservation Association sent a letter to the zoning board a year ago, and more recently the CRMC, expressing its concerns about the project. The association is the state-designated watershed council for the Narrow River, officially known as the Pettaquamscutt Estuary. As such, the law allows the group legal standing to weigh in on any proposal that might affect the waterway.

Craig Wood, the association’s secretary and a coastal ecologist, wrote to the chairman of the zoning board on April 12, 2022, that the lot is susceptible to “inundation from future high tides alone, not considering consequences of additional flooding from increasing frequent low energy coastal storms.”


Wood added that Veltri was requesting several major variances and that the lot was too small to include necessary buffer zones. As proposed, the house would have a 5-foot “envelope” — the width of the lawn surrounding it.


He reiterated those concerns in a letter last month to Tracy Silvia at CRMC. “To our disappointment, the Zoning Board issued multiple forms of relief to local ordinances,” Wood wrote.

Veltri's experts testify his plan for the lot is appropriate, compatible with neighborhood

The zoning board hearing featured testimony on multiple nights between April and September, with a few continuances between. Veltri told the board he is a licensed surveyor and conducted his own survey to establish the property boundaries, adding that he reduced the footprint of the house because of CRMC’s previous concerns.


His lawyer, Garrahy, then presented a coastal biologist, licensed real estate appraiser, planning and use expert and civil engineer — all explaining why they believed Veltri’s proposal was appropriate for the lot.

The real estate appraiser, James Houle, according to the minutes, “believes the proposed house will fit the character of the neighborhood.”


A land-use expert also testified that he believed the proposal was “consistent with the neighborhood.”

Hathaway was stunned when she heard that testimony.

“Their real estate expert said a 35-foot-tall house on stilts would fit in with the neighborhood. It was very disheartening to see this play out, because it was just wrong to do this and then they [the zoning board] said it’s OK.”


Zoning Board member Thomas Callahan sat through the six-plus hours of testimony. When the board was finally scheduled to vote in September, he came armed with a summary of facts that had been presented to the board. He referred to testimony by Richard Pastore, a civil engineer who spoke against the plan. Pastore noted that the house would be built just 10 feet from the road, to locate it as far from the river as possible. Pastore testified Veltri was not seeking the least amount of relief, and could reduce the size of the house from two bedrooms to one.


Lisa Bryer, a member of the neighborhood association and an expert in community planning, noted that 47% of the land consisted of wetlands or was under water. She said the CRMC’s own projections are that over the next two decades there would be a 2-foot sea level rise, and the house and parking area would be within the high tide line.


Approving the proposal 'as the conditions stand today'

Callahan made a motion to deny Veltri’s request for variances, reading from a 700-word prepared statement that laid out his reasoning and the facts supporting it.


“Constructing a new home on the … property that is subject to periodic flooding now and is reasonably forecast to be inundated within the next 20 years is wholly inconsistent with” the town’s comprehensive plan, Callahan told his fellow board members. He noted that Veltri’s proposal did not represent “the least relief necessary.”


The motion died when no one seconded it.

Zoning board member Christopher Almon then made a motion to approve the relief requested by Veltri. According to minutes of the meeting:  “Almon stated that the proposal needs to be looked at as the conditions stand today and not what they might be in the future.”


The board’s chairman, James Manning, according to the minutes said, “Although he has no doubts about the concerns over sea level rise, he believes the applicant’s proposal meets development standards.”


The motion passed, 4 to 1.

Knapp told The Hummel Report last month: “I’m kind of done. We put up a really good fight. The feeling I got from the zoning board was — this poor guy should be able to build. We’re not going to tell someone they can’t build on their land.”


Jim Wolcott questions the timing of Veltri’s purchase of the property. Veltri said early in the process that he had a purchase and sales agreement with Wyss, contingent on approvals from CRMC and the zoning board. But Veltri purchased the property two days before the zoning board’s decision. Town records indicate he paid $95,000 for the lot (which is assessed for tax purposes at $185,000), plus tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes and sewer assessments dating back more than a decade. 


“We went to a series of meetings — until the end there was no word from the zoning board about what was going to happen. At that point [Veltri] didn’t own the land. He had a deal with the owner that if he got the permit, he would pay,” Wolcott said. “So before our last meeting, when they were going to give us the answer of yes or no —  two days before he paid the owner for the land and paid back taxes to the town of Narragansett. Before he heard the outcome, he bought it. Nobody in their right mind is going to spend that kind of money if they don’t know the outcome [of the vote].”

CRMC now has the proposal in their court

The proposal now goes to CRMC, which received Veltri’s application for approval in December. A spokeswoman would say only that the staff is still reviewing it. The 10-member council is down three members, with no nominations pending. It canceled its meeting last month.


Because there is opposition to the plan, the full council will schedule a public hearing at a yet-to-be-determined date. Save The Bay said the case is on its radar screen, and the organization will weigh in when that hearing is scheduled.


The council has been the subject of legislative scrutiny after several controversial decisions. They include a back-room deal struck by the agency to settle a 20-year-old case involving a proposed marina expansion on Block Island, first reported by The Hummel Report in February 2021. The Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected that deal — and the expansion — in October.


Then, the full council in December approved an application for two electrical cables connecting a large wind farm off the coast to the mainland power grid, a decision that only recently became public. The Journal’s Alex Kuffner reported last month:


“CRMC staff advised the voting council of the law and, in their recommendation for approval, included the stipulation on the General Assembly’s authority which would subject the lease to greater public scrutiny. A lawyer for the council agreed. Yet, after a brief discussion and little explanation, the council took the opposite position, siding with the project developers and voting to keep the lease and the negotiation of any fees in its own hands.”


And that’s what has the neighbors in Narragansett worried: that the staff, which has opposed building on Veltri’s property before, might be overruled by the full council.


“The scientists at CRMC I trust, because they’ve already opposed it,  Hathaway said. ”I don’t trust the [full] council.”


Knapp added: “I was really hopeful until the second-to-last [zoning board] meeting. Then I could see the writing on the wall. Just the way they spoke to our lawyer and to each other, I thought: This isn’t good. And I have minimal hope [about CRMC], because they have their own set of problems. I’m beginning to lose confidence in CRMC.”


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