Those in Warwick who have not yet complied with mandatory tie-ins to the sewer system can breathe a sigh of relief. Twin bills sponsored by Sen. Michael McCaffrey and Rep. Joseph McNamara that would modify provisions for mandatory tie-ins were passed in both chambers last week, and although the governor vetoed the bills, the House and Senate overrode his decision.
Under the new regulations, those who have not yet tied into the sewer system must only do so within one year of selling their home, or if their current cesspool fails.
Roger Durand, a citizen who has been pushing for the mandatory hookups in Ward 1 to be abolished, said other areas of Warwick already fall under the guidelines outlined in the new law.
The mandatory tie-ins impacted a selected niche of Ward 1 in the Governor Francis Farms neighborhood; about 300 homes fell under the Governor Francis Farms Phase II category, of which 200 homes have already tied in.
The remaining 100, said McNamara, were the reason for pushing the bill’s passage.
“The individuals I have heard from are seniors living on fixed incomes,” said McNamara, who said many of those in the rear section of the Farms live in homes built on cement slabs, making tying-in more costly and inconvenient.
“It was the difference between them staying in their homes or moving out,” he said.
McNamara said opposition from additional residents stemmed from the fact they were never informed of the tie-in process, and were upset that the mandates were put into effect by a non-governing body.
“A non-elected office was changing state laws without due process,” said McNamara.
McNamara said it’s mostly a case of citizen advocacy, and Durand agreed, thanking both McNamara and McCaffrey for listening to concerned residents.
Durand said Councilman Steven Colantuono, who represents Ward 1, turned a deaf ear to his and other citizens’ complaints on the matter.
Colantuono said he had no response to Durand.
“I understand the concerns,” said Colantuono. “But we have to think about all of the people in the ward, not just one.”
Despite a large margin of support in both the House and Senate, Governor Chafee vetoed the bill, citing concerns for the environment and interference with the statewide cesspool phase out.
McNamara said the bill does not undermine the cesspool phase out program and doesn’t remove the sewer authority’s power to regulate cesspools.
“The legislature has spoken and the Warwick Sewer Authority will make sure that they are working in concert with the State Department of Environmental Management to implement the new regulations,” said Mayor Scott Avedisian in an email.
Durand believes Chafee’s reason for vetoing the bill isn’t the environment, but because of his connections to the Warwick Sewer Authority as former mayor, and his friendship with Avedisian.
“Two plus two equals four,” said Durand.
Durand said the major factor for pushing a mandatory tie-in in the Governor Francis Farms area was to open access to a $500,000 Department of Environmental Management (DEM) grant.
Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority, said the city would not have had access to that, and another $500,000 grant, had they not implemented mandatory tie-in procedures.
To Burke, who said her main concerns are the overall health of the community and improving water quality, the change to mandatory tie-in procedures is a step backwards.
“I don’t know how it came about,” she said. “It seems like short-term individual interests trumped the health of the overall community.”
Burke said the DEM is looking into whether or not the bill, which became effective upon passage, will get those who have not already tied in off the hook. Because the mandates were issued before the bill was passed, Burke said Governor Francis Farms Phase II is still a “gray area.”
But McCaffrey said the entire point of the bill was to alleviate those homeowners of the pressure of mandatory tie-ins. He also noted that he hadn’t received any communication from Burke or Avedisian.
“At the hearing on the bill in the Senate Environmental Committee, no one from the Warwick Sewer Authority was there,” he said.
“It’s just going to take longer to get where we want to get,” said Burke.
Burke and Colantuono said it’s also unfair to those who have already tied into the system, who are essentially paying for those who have not.
“It’s the ‘free rider’ concept,” said Burke. “The city should have done this years and years ago. There’s no incentive for those who haven’t connected. Why should they connect?”
Burke said the average connection cost is $1,600. Whether they connect or not, property owners are responsible for the assessment cost. By not connecting, they avoid user fees that are based on a fixed rate plus water usage.
In addition to the setback of this bill, Burke said the sewer authority just wrapped up a $45,000 court battle over a pump station on Kristen Court in Governor Francis Farms.
“We had to spend $45,000 in legal fees to get the answer we had already given,” she said.
The case dealt with a dispute over whether or not the land (originally given to the city to be used as open space) could be zoned as residential and used as a home for a pump station. The Superior Court ruled that the former developer, Felix Carlone, had no rights to the land, and upheld prior rulings regarding the pump station and the land on which it sits.
In terms of the sewer tie-ins, both McNamara and McCaffrey feel they were citizen advocates, and Durand said the passage of the bill is a sign that democracy still works. They are pleased with the outcome of the bill, despite arguments that the environment will suffer.
“I’m as concerned about the environment as anyone else,” said McNamara.