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Thanks to Gov. Gina M. Raimondo and the General Assembly, Rhode Island has just become fairer to property owners and home purchasers.

Legislation signed into law July 6 effectively prevents municipalities from artificially increasing the size of a lot required for development, which also increases the costs of new houses.

The law requires that municipalities include wetland buffer areas in the calculation of minimum lot area and the number of units or lots for development on a particular property.

Currently, approximately half of Rhode Island’s cities and towns exclude such wetland buffers from the density calculation, which means it takes more land to make a buildable house lot, which adds additional costs to the purchase price of a new house.

Consider as an example a 10-acre parcel that contains 3 acres of wetlands and 2 acres of buffer area. If the minimum lot size is three-quarters of an acre, and you assume you need one-quarter of an acre per lot for roadways and infrastructure, the 10-acre parcel would support only five house lots, if the wetlands buffer was excluded from the calculation of minimum lot area. With the passage of this legislation, based on this example the parcel would now support seven house lots, since the 2-acre wetlands buffer area would be included in the density calculation.

Opponents of the legislation say it increases housing density, which threatens wetlands. Yet, the legislation specifically provides that it does not change the statutory definition of a buildable lot, and does not allow the disturbance of wetlands or wetland buffers. And it does not pertain to buffers protecting reservoirs.

So what is the real objection, and why do half of the municipalities artificially restrict density of development through wetlands buffers? While you will hear concerns such as protecting the rural character of the area or protecting fragile wetlands, what may also be at play is the desire to restrict development to limit the impact on schools and thus, municipal costs.

If that is in fact the case, given that these density restrictions increase the cost of housing, and thus hurt consumers, perhaps the better approach is to focus on the problem and address school costs through other measures.

In other words, perhaps land-use policy should deal with land-use issues. •

John M. Boehnert practices real estate and environmental law in Providence.

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