NOTE: This story was updated after a court clerk clarified the hearings will be held in Rhode Island.
COVENTRY, R.I. (WPRI) — All three U.S. District Court Judges in Rhode Island have recused themselves from the federal Johnson’s Pond lawsuit, so an impartial judge from New Hampshire is being brought in to preside over the hearings.
Court documents show in late July, U.S. District Court Chief Judge John McConnell, Judge Mary McElroy and Judge William Smith recused themselves in the case between the owner of Johnson’s Pond and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
“While it is not uncommon for all of the Judges to recuse in a case, it doesn’t happen that often,” U.S. District Court Clerk Nora Tyer-Witek said. “In this particular case, all of the Judges have personal knowledge of the case through relationships to people who live in and around the pond.”
The owners of Johnson’s Pond’s dam and water flow rights, Soscia Holdings LLC, are suing the DEM over a state law that recently went into effect.
The law requires dam owners to get DEM’s approval to raise or lower water levels. Johnson’s Pond is one of six bodies of water to which the law applies.
The DEM issued a cease and desist order to Soscia Holdings to require them to raise the water levels that are consistent with historic use. In response, the owner’s lawyer filed a federal lawsuit claiming the cease and desist is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit states the actions by the DEM “require Soscia to keep its submerged land under water which actions completely deprive Soscia of all economically beneficial use of its property.”
Soscia Holdings controls the dam and prior to the law going into effect, had control over when to open the gates to send water downstream, lowering the overall level of the pond.
On July 28, U.S. District Court records show Soscia Holdings filed a temporary restraining order in an attempt to stop the enforcement of the new state law. One day later, that order was denied by New Hampshire District Judge Landya McCafferty.
The controversy around the water levels in Johnson’s Pond began in 2020 when Soscia Holdings bought the dam and its water flow rights.
Residents are decrying the water levels, saying they are impacting their properties and wildlife.
Soscia Holdings’ attorney disputes those claims, saying they are in compliance with the lease they have with the town of Coventry.
The office of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha released a statement to 12 News saying it’s reviewing the case with the DEM and will defend the agency in the lawsuit.
“The Attorney General is aware of the concerning reports regarding water levels at Johnson’s Pond,” the statement read. “We are working closely with DEM to assess the information and will take whatever legal action is necessary to protect this important freshwater asset, including ensuring compliance with all applicable laws. This Office will also defend DEM in the lawsuit filed by Soscia Holdings.”