A Jamestown woman's well ran dry. Why won't the town let her tie into its water system?
JAMESTOWN — Town leaders acknowledged more than a year ago that Christina DiMeglio was in “dire straits.”
But they denied her request to tie into Jamestown’s water district, saying they were concerned about having enough water to supply future development. That forced DiMeglio, her husband and two young children to move out of their single-family home after their well ran dry, even though a pipe carrying the town’s water supply ends 200 yards south of their driveway.
While the majority of Jamestown’s 5,400 residents — including the five members of The Town Council — are connected to the “urban” water district, the DiMeglios live in the “rural” district, where everyone relies on well water. Town leaders contend they are prohibited from supplying water to the rural homes, according to the water district’s regulations, even as they accept DiMeglio’s compelling argument and an estimate that her house would draw an average of 160 gallons a day from a system that has a capacity of 185,000 gallons daily.
“I have a house I can’t sell, I have a house I can’t rent and I have a house I can’t live in,“ DiMeglio said in an interview last month with The Hummel Report.
Homeowner will again petition the water district
DiMeglio bought her property on East Shore Road in 2016 when she was single, and she has seen the water supply and quality consistently deteriorate since then. She hired engineers and water experts who told her they have done all they can to extract more water from the 440-foot well, and the only option is to tie into the town’s water supply. She’s offered to pay for the extension of the 650-foot line.
DiMeglio continues to pay taxes on the 1,700-square-foot ranch home that has a view of the Pell Bridge from her backyard, even though she hasn’t lived there since the summer of 2020. After renting a home for a year, she and her family moved in with her parents in the fall of 2021, when the lease ran out.
DiMeglio’s attorney, Joelle C. Rocha, will be back Monday night before the Jamestown Town Council, sitting as the Board of Water and Sewer Commissioners. Rocha comes armed with a new application, expert witnesses and a state law passed in June that she says entitles DiMeglio to have the water main extended to her house, regardless of what local regulations say.
Rocha said the law, signed by Gov. Dan McKee in June, prohibits a local water district (there’s hundreds in Rhode Island) from denying a tie-in if an applicant meets several criteria.
“Christina blows those standards away with all the expert information we have,” Rocha told The Hummel Report.
Monday’s meeting will be the latest in a series of meetings since May 2021 that, at times, have turned contentious.
A trickle of brackish water, and ruined appliances
DiMeglio bought the property in 2016 and moved in with her dog in early 2017 after major renovation of a house that had seen better days. Because the waterfront property had gone up for auction, DiMeglio moved on it quickly and did not have the water system tested before purchase.
“Everybody near me is on a well and everybody has water,” she said, adding that the water output was low but functional for a single person.
She has since gotten married, and the couple have a 3-year-old son, Mikey, who was born in July 2019. Their daughter, Josephine, was born Monday.
“I would run out of water periodically, and I just dealt with it — until I had my son,” DiMeglio said. “When it was just me and I ran out of water — not the end of the world. When I had my son, I realized I couldn’t make his formula and I couldn’t give him a bath, and I couldn’t do his laundry. That’s when I said: I can't do this anymore.”
Then the pandemic hit in March 2020.
“What did they tell us to do? Wash our hands," DiMeglio said. "I couldn’t come home and wash my hands.”
What was once a gallon a minute dwindled to a tenth of a gallon of brackish water — the equivalent of pouring out a can of soda — despite water experts trying to jump-start the well. The DiMeglios would get sick if they ingested the water, and it gradually ruined their appliances.
“We had to switch off what we were doing,” she said. “One day we’d do laundry, one day we showered, one day we’d bathe the baby. And any sort of water that we used for formula or the dog and the cat was either bottled, or we boiled it for a very long time.”
One of the engineers asked why she wasn’t tying into the town’s water supply, since he could see a hydrant a tenth of a mile south of her property.
“ I did not want to have to go ask the town to make an exception for me,” DiMeglio said. “But I had exhausted all of my options; there is no other solution to this. I can’t live like this and the house is valueless if it doesn’t have water.”
So she asked to appear before the water commissioners on May 17, 2021. The meeting was held virtually.
“My well is actively failing,” she told the board. “There really is nowhere else on my property that I can legally put a well, due to where my septic is and where the existing well is now. We can’t go on like this, which is why I’m coming to you as a last resort,” DiMeglio said, adding that she wanted to live in Jamestown “forever” and send her children to school there.
Jamestown council worried about North Pond's yield
Michael Gray, the director of Jamestown’s Department of Public Works, told the commissioners that North Pond, the town’s main water supply, has a safe yield of 185,000 gallons per day. Water district customers are using an average of 152,000 gallons per day, a figure that is expected to increase to 169,000 gallons daily by 2036, Gray said. The daily usage fluctuates, depending on the time of year, and during this summer’s drought the district imposed outdoor watering restrictions, even for residents with wells.
“It’s hard to ignore what they’re experiencing. I can’t imagine that, especially with a family,” Gray said, but added: “We, as stewards of this water … we just need to make sure that water is available, and that water is available for the urban district.”
Randall White, a longtime resident who was elected to the council in 2018, said: “I must say that it’s hard, as compelling as the personal story that Christina set forth is, to look at these individual applications without also looking with a broader lens at issues that concern all of us in Jamestown. Ones that have been there … slightly below the surface for a long time and are likely to become more apparent and acute as time goes on.”
White suggested that the water commissioners delay making a decision on DiMeglio’s application that night so the town’s staff could take a closer look at the larger picture of current and future water usage in Jamestown. He also said DiMeglio’s application could open up a wave of other homeowners in the rural district wanting to tie into the urban water district.
DiMeglio’s father, Joseph R. Paolino Jr. — a developer and former mayor of Providence — asked to speak.
“I am here as a grandfather,” Paolino said. “I’m sure many of you have children and grandchildren, and if they were in the same condition that my grandson is living in right now, I think all of you just, instinctively as a grandparent, you would say we don’t need more homework.
“I’ve got to question this: By my daughter paying taxes on her property, is she getting her tax money's worth? Where she can’t give her son a bath or brush his teeth? Give him drinking water? You can’t table a 2-year-old baby, I’m sorry. That baby needs to hear today that he can have drinking water. Don’t take the easy way out. And I’m not trying to minimize your job, but I’ve been in government a long time.”
Despite Paolino’s plea, the commissioners voted to delay a vote.
Over the next several weeks, DiMeglio tried to reach out to the council members to make another pitch before the June meeting.
“I tried to call them and talk to them as human beings,” she said. “One of the council members said: ‘You’re not making any friends. It’s not helping your case, by having your father come on to berate and demean people. I was like, ‘He was there as a grandfather. And that was not my dad berating people. That was nothing.’”
Council says they have no choice but to reject application
By the June 2021 meeting, four of DiMeglio’s neighbors also had asked to tie into the water line. Gray gave a lengthy report to the commissioners, buttressed by statistics.
He said the town’s comprehensive plan estimated that there were 273 potential new lots available to develop in town, and that 32 units had been built since 2014.
“You want to make sure any decisions that we make, we have water that is sufficient for all the needs of everyone on the system,“ Gray told the commissioners. “That’s what we’re charged with. We’re stewards of this water. It’s the ratepayers that own this water, and it must be continuously available in the future. So we must be careful in how we use it.”
After Gray’s presentation, White spoke for the next 21 minutes. “We are in a unique position, maybe shared only with the likes of Block Island, where we have a relatively small, finite — very important word — and fragile water system that has to be protected at all costs if we’re going to maintain the ability to give anybody water in the future,” he said.
White, who retired from the Rhode Island attorney general’s office in late 2014 after working as a prosecutor for 32 years, implored his fellow water commissioners to look at the larger picture.
“The next time we face an applicant, we’ll have no credibility, there will be no integrity to the decision-making process that we’re asked to undertake,” White said, if the commissioners wanted to deny an application.
His closing argument: “I personally, as much as it pains me on a personal level, to these sincere applicants, there is no choice, there is no responsible choice for us as water and sewer commissioners. These applications fail, and they fail on their face and they must be rejected.”
The commissioners voted unanimously to reject the applications of DiMeglio and four others.
What's next for DiMeglio?
DiMeglio, who for more than two years has paid taxes on a house she can’t live in, has weighed her options since last year’s denial. The water district’s regulations offer no avenue of appeal. Her only option is to go to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which is not obligated to hear an appeal. A few months ago she hired Rocha, an attorney specializing in land use.
Two weeks after the General Assembly passed the law related to water tie-ins, Rocha filed a new application with Jamestown on behalf of DiMeglio. Last month Rocha appeared before the council, accompanied by experts, ready to testify.
It was over before it got fully under way.
White interjected, saying that the water commissioners had already vetted DiMeglio’s application a year ago and rejected it.
In what became a testy exchange, Rocha said that she had filed a new application, with a new state law that directly applied to DiMeglio’s situation. White asked that Rocha supply the commissioners with a memorandum of law about the new legislation. Rocha replied that it wasn't necessary if White would just read the new statute himself.
“I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you think,” Rocha said she told him.
In an interview last week, Rocha said: “In the year 2000, they projected there would be this massive increase in population. And none of that has happened.”
She noted that DiMeglio’s situation is much worse than her neighbors', and that hers is the only application pending before the water board.
“Is the sky falling if 100 people apply, or 200 people apply?” Rocha said. “I guess, then you’re in trouble when there’s a drought. But I’ll tell you, we just had a drought, and other than putting outdoor limitations — they weren’t like ‘Oh my God, we’re running out of water.’ To put on this theatrical production that one house at 160 gallons per day is going to cave the entire system and no one in the entire town is going to have water, is insane.”
White told the Hummel Report last week that it would be inappropriate for him to talk about DiMeglio’s application outside of what he’s already “put on the record.”
DiMeglio still holds out hope that she’ll be able to move back into her home, but admits the process has left her somewhat jaded.
“One of the saddest parts for me is, when I moved here I loved Jamestown. I do love Jamestown. I love my neighbors. It’s quiet and it’s not Newport. And I never thought that I would live in a place that I love so much that hates me so much, or doesn’t want to take care of me. You take care of your residents.”