- Tom Sgouros
Bargaining for cleaner water at Wickford Junction
A substantial new housing development is being proposed at Wickford Junction, between the Walmart, the train tracks, and the train station. There is some controversy around it, so let's talk about what's going on, what's controversial, what are the important issues to worry about, and the important ones not to worry about, too.
1. Doesn't the septic system threaten the water supply? There is an important town well (number 6) a little bit to the north of the Walmart, not far from the intersection of Quaker Lane and Stony Lane. The proposed development will use the septic system that was built to handle the entire Wickford Junction development, including the Walmart, the Staples, and the other stores there. The septic system is over on the left as you drive toward the Walmart, behind the fitness place, in the power line right of way between Wickford Junction and Grant Drive off Old Baptist Road.
The septic system is not in the wellhead protection zone, though it's pretty close to it. In fact, none of Wickford Junction is, except parts of the lot that were left as open space, to the left of the Walmart as you approach it. That's actually the swampy headwaters of what becomes a trickle when it flows under the railroad track, then grows and becomes Sandhill Brook that leads to Saw Mill Pond, north past Devils Foot Road, eventually joining the Hunt River that flows out past Pojac Point in Quidnesset.
Though this septic system is not in the recently-widened zone that protects the town's well number 6 it clearly does have an impact on the Hunt watershed and it is part of the general groundwater recharge zone that protects our drinking water. It is worth our scrutiny. Which is why it's a problem that it does not appear to be a well-functioning system.
(Click here to read more about the various ground water zones in town.)
2. But the septic system is failing and stinky. The septic system has been the subject of several complaints about the smell. And in fact this was the reason I could be sure that I'd found it when I took the photo above. There are two important things to know about this system. One is that septic systems in Rhode Island are regulated at the state level. This is a problem, since DEM seldom gets enough of its budget request met to provide the timely service and protection that citizens demand.
Two, the system was designed for much more flow than it gets today. As you look around Wickford Junction, you'll see a lot of vacant lots, some with weeds, and one with a boarded up red caboose. Based on the original master plan, the developers anticipated over 170,000 more square feet of commercial and retail space that has not yet been built. (For comparison, the Walmart is about 123,000 square feet.) The septic system was originally designed to accommodate hundreds more people, in offices and stores. Without that flow, the pools that make up the treatment system get stagnant and the anaerobic activity that results is what makes it smelly. Some anaerobic activity does not necessarily mean that the water that dissipates from the system is fouled, but it is a sign of trouble, and not great for people downwind.
The existing septic system is definitely a problem, but the state is in charge. However, that will change with the new development, because the town has made a condition of its approval that the septic system be brought under town regulation. This is great news, because the town actually has some pretty strict regulation of septic systems. According to the URI extension water infrastructure experts, North Kingstown is the only town in Rhode Island that regulates the nitrate emissions from septic systems, and does so at a threshold half as high as the EPA guidelines. The regulations agreed to for this system go even further and insist that the system be treated as a holding tank with regular pumpouts if they cannot maintain the nitrogen standards in a monitoring well. This is a new requirement, made possible by the development.
3. What about the variances? The Wickford Junction apartments needs variances from town zoning to be built. Zoning rules set minimum lot sizes for houses in the area, in large part because of the septic demands. Because the developer needed these variances from the town in order to build, the town was able to bargain for regulation of the entire septic system. This is a major step forward for protecting the town's water supply.
4. But the traffic? We are talking about 152 proposed apartments, located on a two-lane road, less than a half-mile from the highway. Those are not winding country roads, but arterial roads that can handle much more traffic than they see now. Just as important, those apartments are also served by RIPTA and the MBTA trains. The Walmart alone currently sees hundreds of cars visiting every day and the peak traffic times see around a thousand cars per hour on Ten Rod Road, according to the traffic study that was done. (Also a requirement of the town.)
5. But our rural town character? The proposed apartments are next to a Walmart.
6. Is that the best you can do? To be a little less arch about it, the transformation of North Kingstown from a largely rural community to a largely suburban one continues apace, to the dismay of many. But what drives that? North Kingstown is a nice place to live which means there is ample demand for houses here. If the only way to live here is to build a new house on what used to be woods, then people are going to do that. If there are other options, people will take them, too. If you want to relieve the pressure of development on the rural parts of town, it makes sense to provide options.
What is important is to understand the limits to action: you cannot forbid people from moving to town; you cannot forbid people from selling land; you cannot forbid people from building houses. There is no drawbridge to pull up that could insulate North Kingstown from having to accommodate new people. If people want to move to town, they will. What the Town Council can do is to manage that growth to minimize the harm it does. It can best do that by steering the influx of people to the denser parts of town, to preserve the open space and what is left of the rural character of our town.
And in truth, the preserve-our-town crowd have it backwards. A couple hundred new residents in apartments next to a Walmart are going to have a much smaller impact on the scenery of our town than dozens of suburban homes on two-acre lots in Shermantown, or dozens of McMansions on the shores of Saunderstown. If you want to preserve our town, steer the growth to where it will do the least harm, like maybe where there is already a Walmart.
7. What's the other plan? There are a fair number of people in town concerned about this development, its impact on the Wickford Junction septic system, and on the town's water supply. A fair question for them is what is their plan for cleaning up that system and reducing its threat? What is their plan for preserving the rural character? By striking a good bargain with the developer, the town has a plan to clean the ground water and accommodate population growth in a non-rural part of town, served by public transportation. That seems well worth supporting.
You can find a lot of the supporting documents about this development, that detail the studies done for it, and the various considerations and conditions for its construction, on the agenda for the 12/21/21 Planning Commission meeting.