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Rejected

The state’s Coastal Resources Management Council this week rejected a controversial proposal by a Narragansett man to build a house on an undersized lot in wetlands adjacent to the Narrow River.

Barring an uphill legal challenge by Nicholas Veltri, the council’s unanimous decision ends a years-long saga that engulfed dozens of neighbors - and those worried about the precedent an approval would have had for other projects located in environmentally sensitive areas.

“This neighborhood really came together and showed up to protect the wetland and preserve the river,” said Patricia Federico, who has helped lead the fight against Veltri’s proposal.

The opponents told a story of David vs. Goliath, a grassroots effort up against paid experts who the neighbors say portrayed the opposite of what they saw evolving in their neighborhood.

“I'm overcome with hope because environmental standards for conservation, backed by a concerned community, were able to preserve a wetland by defeating paid testimony supporting irresponsible development in the watershed,” Federico added.

 

The travel of the case dates back more than two decades and was first detailed in a Hummel Report investigation, published in The Providence Sunday Journal, in April 2023. The story was accompanied by pictures showing the Narrow River coming up into the neighborhood, flooding Veltri’s property and making part of an adjacent street impassable.

The latest iteration of construction had Nicholas Veltri asking to build a two-story home on an 8,000-square-foot lot, 14 feet above ground, with a total height of 35 feet. The plans called for 603 square feet on the first floor, a 100-square-foot deck, a 551-square- foot second floor and 400 square feet for parking. Veltri needed significant variances on the local and state level to make it work - but the coastal resources council is the regulatory body that ultimately had to sign off.

The proposal that CRMC heard this week was significantly reduced in size from the original plan by a previous owner in 2017 and 2020; the CRMC staff recommended rejection of both. Tuesday night, Tracy Silvia,  a senior environmental scientist for the coastal resources council, reiterated to the members what the staff had written.

“Although the applicant has attempted to reduce the scope of the project, the two prior applications indicate how difficult the site development would be,” Silvia said at the outset of the hearing, referencing the reports.

But the full council hasn’t always followed the recommendation of its staff, which led to 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 eventually rejected the deal - and the expansion.

Then, the full council in December 2022 approved an application for two electrical cables connecting a large wind farm off the coast of Block Island to the mainland power grid, a decision that wasn’t initially made public.

 

For Veltri, a licensed surveyor who owns multiple properties in Narragansett, the official process to build on Wilson Drive began in 2022 when he didn’t even own the property at 0 Wilson Drive. He hired an attorney and an bevy of experts to testify before the Narragansett Planning Board, which unanimously rejected the plan; despite that, the town’s Zoning Board approved the same proposal a month later on a 4-to-1 vote. The board rejected concerns about climate change and the continued rising level of the Narrow River.

That raised eyebrows among the neighbors who questioned why Veltri purchased the property - and paid off back taxes - two days before the Zoning Board vote.

Veltri said early in the process that he had a purchase and sales agreement with the previous owner, contingent on approvals from CRMC and the zoning board. Town records indicate he paid $95,000 for the lot, plus tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes and sewer assessments dating back more than a decade before he obtained the necessary approvals. 

Tuesday night, Veltri’s team, led by attorney John J. Garrahy, assembled again in a conference room at the Department of Administration building in Providence for hearing that would last three hours, once it finally began. The start of the meeting was delayed almost an hour because one member was late; CRMC needed him for a quorum - an ongoing problem for the council the past several years as it has had resignations resulting in multiple vacancies.

Armed with a power point presentation, Garrahy had an environmental engineer, a real estate appraiser and a biologist tell council members why they believed Veltri’s proposal would be compatible with the neighborhood - and the environment.

At the end of the nearly two-hour presentation, Garrahy told the council: “I would suggest that we have met our burden of meeting…the criteria set forth in the regulations. When you compare the standards to our expert testimony I believe we…qualify for the variances.”

No one, except Veltri’s paid experts, testified in favor of the project.

 

Then it was the opponents’ turn. Eight people, mostly neighbors, spent an hour telling the council the devastating effect they believed Veltri’s project would have.

Federico, who lives just up the road from Veltri’s property on Wilson Drive, said she took a measurement from the corner of her property to the high tide mark in the river when she bought her house in 1998. It was 50 feet. Federico took another measurement recently and it was 38 feet.

“That’s 12 feet of land gone in 25 years,” Federico said. “So my concern is for the current homeowners, and the risk and cost of flooding. In its current state (Veltri’s property) serves as natural buffer for the homeowners surrounding this property.”

Martha Callan, a abutter whose family has owned land in the neighborhood since the 1950s, said, “All that time the land is what I would consider a swamp. I don’t consider it wetlands. No one  ever believed that anyone would try to build anything in there. It’s beyond my wildest imagination. I’m concerned that if Mr. Veltri builds there, any water that is displaced would negatively impact me. Until it’s built you don’t know.”

Callan also responded to Veltri’s assertion earlier in the meeting that he and his wife planned to live in the house, even though he owns a 2,500-square-foot house overlooking the West Passage of Narragansett Bay that is assessed at just under $1.5 million.

“I don’t understand why someone who lives in Bonnet Shores would really want to move to a mosquito bog and go up and down those stairs all day long. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Callan said.

Craig Wood was the last person to speak. Wood, a professional wetlands scientist and coastal ecologist, is on the board of directors for the nonprofit Narrow River Preservation Association and The Narrow River Land Trust.

“I spend a tremendous amount of my personal time trying to be a steward of the Narrow River Watershed,” Wood said, as he began to choke up. “Should the council find that this proposal is consistent with your goals and policies, then the future health of the Narrow River estuary is very grim indeed.”

 

Before the vote, CRMC Chairman Raymond C. Coia gave Silvia, the council staff member, an opportunity to rebut Veltri’s experts.

Silvia responded: “The staff’s opinion is the site is currently best utilized as is: for an area for storm water, wildlife habitat, flood abatement…..as well as future passive recreation. Development of this lot would be precedent setting for other significant and variant-constricted parcels facing increasing sea level rise and storm water challenges.”

Council Member Donald Gomez, the one stuck in traffic who delayed the meeting, made a motion to reject the application, citing the staff report and the testimony from the objectors.

“My personal opinion is that the climate change is happening faster in this area than other areas,” Gomez said. He also rejected a plea from Garrahy that Veltri’s lot would result in a “regulatory taking” if the council didn’t approve his plan - and be useless if he couldn’t develop it.

“The applicant bought the site and he stated that it was (with) full knowledge of the conditions of the site,” Gomez said. “Previous applicants have all been rejected. He bought the site with the knowledge and then talked about undue hardship. Well it’s kind of like a buyer beware. To me it just needs to be rejected on all of the material presented tonight.”

Coia also commended the staff.

“I listen to the public comments. I don’t let it sway me, but I do appreciate and I do consider it,” Coia said. “But when I afford due weight to the evidence, it’s usually to the expert testimony and we had experts from the applicant as well as our staff experts. We had some demonstrative evidence in the form of photos and on this particular one I’m swayed by the opinions of our staff; and the totality of the evidence: the photos, the history of this lot. I think it’s compelling.”

The vote was 6-0.

 

Garrahy said after the meeting he needed to talk with his client about whether to go forward with an appeal in Superior Court.

 

Ken Ryan, who said he has now attended nearly 20 hours of hearings between local and state meetings, told The Hummel Report after the vote: “Despite all odds, including the nearly unanimous approval of the Narragansett Zoning Board and hours of “expert” testimony, the Narrow River won with the CRMC council supporting the expert work of the CRMC staff.”

Craig Wood said in an email, “Approval of the extraordinary relief sought by the applicant for buffer zone encroachment and building setback requirements, as well as coastal resiliency guidelines would have set a horrific precedent for unsound and non-sustainable development practices within the Narrow River and along the entire Rhode Island coastline.”

 

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.

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