CHARLESTOWN, RI — Open space. Dark skies. Limited development. Good schools. Low taxes. How has Charlestown, a small coastal town packed into the crowded Eastern seaboard, blazed its own decades-long path of holding to its environmental values while also staying financially stable and attracting families to live there? And is Charlestown’s model fiscally and environmentally sustainable?
“We’re the ‘model of yes to this.’ Yes to what the people who live here want: A rural, safe, kind community with good schools, dark skies. Safe to live in, quiet and private so that you can commute to all the hecticness but you have a quiet, safe place to come home to. That’s why most people have moved here. That and the low taxes,” said Virginia Lee, president of the Charlestown Town Council, in a conversation at Town Hall with CT Examiner on December 11.
Despite a reputation for rejecting new development, the town is not the ‘model of no’ to every type of development, she said.
“If you want Charlestown to be Charlestown and not anyplace U.S.A., it means no to Dollar General, it means no to big box stores that are everywhere and anywhere. In particular it’s no to invidious, insidious forces that don’t really care about Charlestown, they just want to make a profit,” she said.
From 2015 to 2018, Charlestown fought to keep Dollar General, a chain of variety stores, out of its downtown. The corporation appealed the town’s initial rejection to the Rhode Island Superior Court, which ruled against the town in 2017. After the town’s Planning Commission denied Dollar General’s application development plan review in August 2018, the corporation scheduled an appeal with the Zoning Board, but withdrew the application the day of the hearing, rendering the Planning Commission’s decision as final.
Allowing a Dollar General would likely have hurt existing businesses like the iconic Charlestown Mini-Super, established in 1970, and violated one of Lee’s basic three principles for keeping the town as-is.
“Valuing local businesses is one key guiding principle and not wanting to put current locally-owned businesses out of business,” she said. “And secondly, good zoning, and third, engagement by the people who say we don’t want this.”
The town is known for its low mill rate, a result of second homes, many on or near the coast, that are highly-valued and generate a solid tax base year-round from part-time residents. Two-thirds of Charlestown’s total budget is generated by property taxes south of Route 1, said Lee.
But the part-time population is changing as retirees choose to move to town year round.
“For a lot of people it was their parents’ homes, their grandparents’ homes. They remember being down here. This was a fun place to be and they’re retiring here because their kids will keep coming and grandkids will keep coming,” she said.
The equation is also slowly shifting because new young families are moving into the northern part of town, Lee said.
“We’re seeing trends of a shift. It isn’t all tourist-based anymore, it’s shifting,” she said.
Septic and sewers
The town depends entirely on septic systems for wastewater management, and with few exceptions, Charlestown also draws its water from wells. According to Lee, who holds a master’s degree in Oceanography, and takes a keen interest in the environment, that leaves Charlestown vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise and dense development.
Like the town — which years ago embraced third-party governance on the local level — Lee’s solutions are unorthodox, a mixture of cutting-edge environmentalism and conservative planning. Two-acre zoning, that is, restricting building density to one house per two acres, which fell out of fashion more than a decade ago, is fundamental to the approach.
According to Lee, the increase in Charlestown’s full-time population combined with climate change is not sustainable unless zoning density above Route 1 is kept consistently low.
“If you want to dispose of your sewage safely and drink out of that same water source safely you cannot load that up. The minute you get over two acres you’re going to have problems — you’re going to have pollution problems, drinking water pollution problems, at least in these outwash soils,” said Lee.
Even if the new developments, permitted on septics, are allowed at “cluster density” or half the normal density requirement, it’s important to make sure the town’s overall average is not more dense than one house per two acres, Lee said. That lower density, even if averaged, will ensure the groundwater is clean by the time it flows from above Route 1 down to the denser coastal properties, the salt ponds and Atlantic Ocean.
One partial solution, not yet commonly permitted in Connecticut, is newer denitrification technology for septic systems which has allowed builders to construct housing closer to water than would otherwise be possible — but Lee voiced considerable scepticism regarding the technology in practice, which she said requires vigilance on the part of homeowners, and which fails to account for the effects of sea-level rise on groundwater.
“The problem is, it got through and became law because the builders got behind it because this now allows people to put in septic systems and build houses virtually on wetlands where they never would have been allowed with a standard septic system. So be careful if you go down that road. We have a lot of houses where they have no business being, perched on wetlands,” she said.
According to Lee, the new technology still depends on sufficient separation from groundwater, and while acknowledging the need for more study, she said that it appears that as sea level rises, saltwater intrusion will push up the groundwater level, which may cause the septic systems to fail.
The alternative, sewers, which are now being planned in the beach communities of Old Lyme, pose their own problems, Lee said.
Sea-level rise complicates gravity-fed sewers, sewer pipes decay and leak and are prone to groundwater and stormwater infiltration, and once an area is sewered, as was the case of Suffolk County, Long Island, the region will face offsetting problems of overdevelopment, Lee warned.
“They were doing this to protect their streams, their bays, Great South Bay, just like our salt ponds, and they sewered at great expense but the density got so high, the streams are still polluted so they didn’t gain what they wanted,” she said. “Once you sewer, the density goes up and you put more houses, more businesses, more structures, at risk, not less. It’s not a sustainable solution.”
Planning a response
In a recent presentation to Charlestown, Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, said the town should plan on a two-foot sea-level rise by 2050.
Lee said that by Fugate’s estimate, 40 percent of the town’s buildings are vulnerable, but the town is making strides in meeting the challenge.
“The building inspector, Joe Warner, has about four years ago now developed a hazard mitigation plan for the state that’s been through state and federal review and has gotten awards and he is enforcing modern building codes to keep structures raised,” she said. “We also have a harbor management plan that has a hazard mitigation component to it … and most importantly we have a new comprehensive plan that Jane [Weidman] has been drafting.”
Weidman, Charlestown’s town planner, who joined the conversation, said among the town’s approach combined an acquisition strategy for properties in the most vulnerable areas, and the creation of a nitrogen overlay district limiting the construction of impervious surfaces that could impact the salt pond areas of the town.
“The idea is to have smaller houses, less bedrooms, less nitrogen going into the groundwater but also at the same time you have less impervious surfaces so you’ll have less flooding and damage,” said Weidman.
Preserving the dark corridor
Lee compared maps showing the least light pollution — the relatively dark nighttime corridor stretching through Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont — with maps of sewer and septic-dependent communities to make the point that decisions on water have much broader implications for development and the environment, and have been a focus for environmental agencies and groups for at least two decades.
The Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, a plan approved in 2016 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire 15,000 acres of wildlife habitat, follows the boundaries of this dark corridor, and includes acreage in Charlestown, said Lee.
“Because this exists now it’s of value not only for our town but for other towns and really for the region from Boston to D.C.,” she said. “This is the only dark, treed, open-spaced outdoor recreation within easy access area from DC to Boston.”