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State officials have won two judicial decisions in recent weeks that they say uphold the state's right to enforce wetlands laws in the face of developers who complain that such regulations deny them the use of their properties.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a Westerly developer who complained that Coastal Resources Management Council regulations prevented him from filling 18 acres of salt marsh along the south shore of Winnipaug Pond so he could build a private beach club.
The court ruled that Anthony Palazzolo's claim is not ripe for a judicial decision because until he "has explored development options less grandiose than filling 18 acres of salt marsh, he cannot maintain a claim that the CRMC has deprived him of all beneficial use of the property."
The court also said sufficient regulations were in place when Palazzolo bought the property in 1978, so that he could not have reasonably expected to win approval to fill acres of wetlands.
In the second case, Superior Court Judge Dominic F. Cresto rejected a $12-million suit by developers who said the state Department of Environmental Management unnecessarily slowed their building of the Woodland Manor project in Coventry by insisting that they apply for a wetlands permit.
Cresto rejected the suit because he said the developers, led by builder Antonio Giordano, had transferred ownership of the property after the dispute with the DEM so the new partnership lacked standing to file the suit.
"The common thread is that in both cases, the developer claimed wetlands regulations constituted confiscation of their land," said Michael Rubin, head of the attorney general's environmental unit. "We are guardedly seeing a positive trend in the courts looking skeptically at these so-called property-rights claims."
Property-rights cases are winning in various states around the country, Rubin said, so Rhode Island officials have reason to be worried.
"The threat of a takings claim is that it might chill state and local officials from vigorously enforcing land-use laws," Rubin said. "We want to kill the chill."
Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, said that so far, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has been very protective of the public's right to enforce environmental regulations, while nationally cases keep going the other way.
The Palazzolo decision "is good from a number of perspectives," Fugate said. "It will caution people as they buy property to look at regulations and determine what is the investment possibility. The whole South County area is exploding, and people buying property in the face of some of these regulations should be aware the courts are upholding these restrictions."Top Back