Opinion

R.I.’s Land-Use Vision and Climate Efforts Blindsided By Shortsighted Development

ecoRI News staff is often asked this question in one form or another: What is the most pressing climate-crisis issue facing Rhode Island? I can’t speak for my colleagues, but, for me, the answer is land-use management. We’re terrible at it, even though we have an extensive library of reports that detail what needs to be done.

Eliminating, or at the very least drastically reducing, greenhouse-gas emissions is the obvious answer globally — and, for the record, Rhode Island is failing terribly at doing its share, especially when it comes to emissions from the transportation sector. However, responsible development is something we can control, and it would better protect us from the climate crisis should the global community fail to kick its addiction to fossil fuels.

Among the many Rhode Island reports collecting cyber dust is the Land Use 2025 plan. Published in April 2006 by the Rhode Island Department of Administration’s Division of Statewide Planning, it was created to reflect “the growing realization of the urgency for Rhode Island to plan, develop, and conserve more intelligently.” It was intended “to guide future land use and development and to present State Guide Plan policies under which State and local land development activities will be reviewed for consistency.” It challenged “Rhode Islanders to work collectively to design, build, and conserve the State’s communities and landscapes.”

Apparently, we declined the challenge. There’s no consistency in our development practices, except that we continue to bulldoze forests and destroy open space because it’s more profitable than redeveloping our concrete jungle. Our conservation efforts — and the yeoman’s work being done by various stakeholders to restore natural features along the Ocean State’s shoreline — can’t keep up with forest fragmentation and coastal development.

We have five years to embrace the principles outlined in the 156-page report. We won’t. We have largely ignored them for 14 years. Land Use 2025 — like the Forest Action Plan 2020, the 2019 The Value of Rhode Island Forests study, the 2010 A Path to Tomorrow’s Forest report, and the rest of our collection of land-use documents — are wielded to push difficult decisions into the future. The information provided and guidelines recommended are largely ignored, as these documents are used to appease concerns without actually doing anything but creating a task force or hiring a consulting firm.

Our refusal to listen to the guidance that we paid for has left us in a developing pattern that doesn’t address the climate crisis and other 21st-century challenges. In fact, since the Land Use 2025 Plan was released, Rhode Island has continued to gobble up green space while mostly ignoring vacant and underused developed space.

Yet, most of the state’s elected officials, from the Statehouse to rural town halls, barely acknowledge this unsustainable practice. There’s more to leading than the here and now.

Adopting an intelligent approach to land use, as recommended in all those archived plans, would help mitigate the impacts of global warming. Forests sequester carbon. Wetlands help control flooding. Salt marshes protect infrastructure from storm surge and rising tides.

Instead, state policy basically primes the bulldozers, and our elected officials refuse to effectively incentivize development on already-disturbed locations.

Rhode Island can no longer afford to dismiss its own advice. We can’t continue to clear, cover, and crush green space. This shortsighted degradation exacerbates the impacts of the climate crisis.

The bill for our shortsightedness only becomes more expensive the longer we delay in taking effective action.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. The Land Use 2025 plan may be collecting cyber dust, but it’s brought out and dusted off occasionally to be interpreted, or rather reinterpreted when some of its conclusions become “inconvenient”. This was demonstrated nicely during the EFSB “Process” to consider the construction of the Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville.

    In its Advisory Opinion to the EFSB dated August 3, 2016, Statewide Planning concluded the Project would indeed be CONSISTENT with Land Use 2025, justifying this conclusion in the following paragraphs:

    “With respect to Objective LUO IA to “Focus growth within the urban services boundary”, the Project is located approximately 1.3 miles from the northwest segment of a village-centered Urban Services Boundary in Burrillville. However, the Program concludes that the chosen site, by providing immediate access to an existing pipeline, thereby reducing the need to extend infrastructure elsewhere, and, the fact the USB is not intended to be absolute determinant for any specific project, means the Project is not inconsistent with Land Use 2025’s objective of focusing growth within the Urban Services Boundaries.”

    So, because the 2025 Plan was not meant to be a determinant for any project, the Clear River Energy Center is not inconsistent? I fail to understand the logic of this conclusion. Either it is within the USB, or it’s not. The fact that the CREC was more than a mile from the USB defines the project as inconsistent with this objective, so why not just say so.

    The opinion continues:
    “In addition, the Program finds that the project will not detract from Land Use 2025’s vision of maintaining a rural/urban distinction with the state’s communities as expressed in Land Use 2025 Goal 1: “A sustainable Rhode Island that is beautiful, diverse, connected and compact with a distinct quality of place in the urban and rural centers”, and Land Use 2025 Objective LUO 3C: “Maintain and protect rural character of various parts of Rhode Island”. In the context of Land Use 2025, the major threat to rural character is sprawling residential development and commercial strip development. The construction of the CREC will impact the project site itself but in the context of “rural character” of Burrillville, its impact would be minimal. The construction of the CREC would not impede the larger vision of a Rhode Island that is beautiful, diverse, connected and compact with a distinct quality of place in our urban and rural centers.”

    So, the major threat to rural character is residential and commercial development, but apparently NOT industrial development? And, claiming the construction of the project would only impact the site itself is absurd. Apparently, the Program did not believe there would be any threat to the rural character of Burrillville from the increased truck traffic bringing water, fuel oil, and other resources to the plant, no offsite noise pollution, no offsite light pollution, no offsite air pollution, and no problem with the removal of nearly 200 acres of forest for the expansion and creation of new powerline infrastructure. Once again, if it is not consistent with maintaining the rural character of Burrillville, why not just say so?

    And, let’s remember that the Statewide Planning Program further concluded that construction of the CREC would be entirely consistent with ALL elements of the State Guide Plan, including Ocean State Outdoors and Forest Plans. No wonder people are skeptical of planning documents when they just become reinterpreted to suit the whims of the administration currently in power.

    Remember Raimondo’s promise to Invenergy: “We will do all we can to ensure you are successful here.” The CREC fiasco is an important lesson about how government really operates.

  2. We could take a big step toward protecting our forest and rural lands if we enacted protection for the habitat of endangered species.

    But we don’t, and far too many people think we do because they confuse wetlands protection, which we vigorously enforce, and "upland" habitat protection which is totally absent from our body of land-use law.

    The irony is this: If I come across a wood turtle, for instance—a species locally protected and a candidate under review right now for Federal protection under the Federal Endangered Species laws—and I "take" it, and carry it out of the woods, but—lo and behold—a DEM game warden spots me, I am in trouble. But if I am a developer, say, of solar energy, and I skin 300 acres of forest in a DEM Wildlife Action Plan designated "Natural Heritage Area," where wood turtles have been documented, there is not a thing the State or the local planning authority can do to stop me so long as I’m not caught in the act of "taking" an individual turtle.

    However. People who were present and paid close attention to the cross examination of expert witness, Anthony Zemba, at the Energy Facility Siting Board hearings for the Invenergy power plant project last year, were informed that in neighboring Connecticut, regulations are on the books for such "taking" of the habitat of a protected species.

    Should, for example, anyone from the Rhode Island office of the Conservation Law Foundation be reading, the transcript if Mr. Zemba’s testimony is available through the EFSB’s office.

    I would hope that the ECRI and the Land Trust Council and the Conservation Commissions council, the Woodlands protection folks, and all the rest would be interested as well.

  3. Bill,
    It’s a good idea, but will never happen unless it is championed by the Director of DEM, and that will certainly not happen under the current Director. One reason, this idea has been suggested before but has been vehemently opposed by Fish and Wildlife. This isn’t the place to go into details about why they oppose it; what needs to happen is finding a DEM Director who believes this is a good idea, and has the vision to bring back the Natural Heritage Program as the regulatory office in Providence with the scientific expertise to conduct the professional review that would be required.

    Of course, none of this will happen under the current administration, and I doubt it will ever happen unless the new DEM Director comes from a state, like CT or MA, where such endangered species protection is already in place.

    And if your looking for help from the RI conservation community, including TNC and Audubon, dream on.

  4. Ha! You got me, Rick. I do dream on… With the times a changin’, will the old order be rapidly a fadin’ ?

    Maybe not.

    Did not see your first comment before I wrote mine. It’s kind of amusing now, Statewide Planning’s opinion about CREC and all the rest. But DEM, which did testify under oath at the EFSB hearings that the power plant would do unacceptable harm to the surrounding environment, including the bordering George Washington Wildlife Management Area, does have one last challenge to face regarding the late unlamented thousand megawatt power plant…

    As partial a survey as it was, its inadequacies revealed in testimony before the Energy Facilities Siting Board, the "biological inventory" done on power plant site revealed 47 RI Wildlife Action Plan "Species of Greatest Conservation Need," including 17 species listed for the more concerning categories of "Of Concern," "Threatened," and "Endangered." (Which includes one reptile species that is also under review by the US Fish & Wildlife Service for protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act, decision pending in 2023.)

    With an inventory like this on a site just a shade over 200 acres, the layman would conclude that it is a cinch that DEM, when it revises its Wildlife Action Plan, due in 2025, will designate this forested ecosystem as a "Natural Heritage Area," and will have it displayed as such on the Plan’s revised "Conservation Opportunity Areas" map.

    However, the nub of the question is will DEM have the fortitude to do this in the face of the landowner’s potential objection—that landowner being Enbridge Inc, one of the giants of the North American fossil fuel transportation industry?

    And with this decision three or four years away, will the Environmental Council of RI, or any of its members, even be aware of its being made?

  5. As long as RI politicians continue to think real estate scams are economic development we will have a worsening climate and more inequality and injustice.

  6. The Wildlife Action Plan states, (Chapter 4 page 16) in describing how the Conservation Opportunity Areas map was created, "The heart of the map is the unfragmented forest blocks of 500 acres or greater." The Invenergy biological inventory was done on a little over 200 acres – of a forest block that is well over 500 acres in size. So, the question is, why wasn’t this area identified as a COA in the first place? Finding so many listed species on the inventory was not a surprise, it was to be expected in a forest block of that size, which is why the 500+ designation is so important – to capture biologically diverse areas without actually needing to know what is there.

    No, the site was conveniently NOT identified when the COA map was created in 2015. (Hmmm, when was the CREC application submitted?) Also remember, the Wildlife Action Plan was facilitated by The Nature Conservancy, and the COA map is primarily a TNC product. One would think that they would have used the mapping and conclusions cited in their Northwest RI Conservation Plan, written in 1996, to inform the COA mapping process. They did not. The real question should not be whether the COA map will be updated to include the CREC site; it should be, why wasn’t it done in the first place?

  7. Thank you Frank for again calling attention to a topic not being adequately noted, nevermind addressed. Too many factors at work against the land use goals: corporate indifference (e.g. Citizens, Neighborhood Health Plan, Fidelity, CVS, building at the periphery;) state government catering to them do so (e.g. building Route 99 for CVS, the Route 5-295 interchange for Citizens;) local government catering to them to get tax revenue; state agencies moving out of the core, the latest is the Board of Elections. When employers move to the edges, it facilitates sprawl even further out. Underlying this is the desire of almost all the public for cheap easy parking most easily satisfied by clearing more land at the periphery. On top og that there is an aversion to the core cities with their high taxes, troubled schools, higher crime rates. On top of that are incentives to convert woodlands to solar "farms" that attract opportunistic developers. On top of that the covid virus is discouraging density and using transit; on top of that is how the environmental community shows little land use leadership as its limited resources have shifted to prioritizing urban "environmental justice" issues and its core message seems to be renewable energy and electric vehicles is all we need. Perhaps its amazing there is any forest left at all!

  8. I thought I should weigh in on the discussion of Land Use 2025, since its publication occurred early in my tenure as associate director of the Division of Planning. It attempted to come to grips with the development of land which far outstripped the state’s relatively meager population growth, noting that if we did mend our ways there would be very little left for generations to come. It suggested trying to encourage growth within an Urban Services Boundary, where public services existed, and transportation was more readily available. It mapped those areas, rather than speaking in generalities. It was an aspirational guidance document, and was the product of a very talented and dedicated team of professionals.
    But it’s not a regulatory document, as control over local land use decisions is, well, local! We could try to encourage communities to this way of ‘conservation thinking’ through their own comprehensive plans, which we reviewed and approved, and occasionally through the inducements of grant funding. But even in administrations that cared about planning (not the current one, beyond its necessity to procure certain federal funds), it could never be used to force a local government to do one thing, or another. We could only encourage, then, or now, local governments to embrace the vision. I don’t disagree with the position that the state, as a whole, has largely failed in this regard, although there are certainly some bright exceptions to that overall view.
    I also wanted to comment about the advisory opinion dealing with the Burrillville power plant. This occurred after my retirement, so I’m not privy to precisely what occurred. But I would not be surprised is the staff was under intense pressure from the administration, which was very up front about their support for the project. Again, I wasn’t there, so I really don’t know. But I do recall a conversation I had with an individual at a very high level in the administration, before I left. I noted that there was a mounting environmental opposition to the plant, to which the response was “ I don’t think the governor is going to dismiss all those jobs because of a few environmentalists.” (fact check…not that many permanent jobs, and many construction jobs would likely come from out of state) When I noted that I believed it was more than a few, I was looked at like I had two heads. Similarly I was asked if a potential candidate for my job could be counted on “to make the right decision at the EFSB” and I was frankly stunned by that. However, it’s important to understand that Statewide Planning IS part of the executive branch of government, and not an independent agency.
    The state guide plans, like Land Use 2025, and local comprehensive plans for that matter, have many components and can say things that appear contradictory. For example most plans at least talk about the need to protect open spaces and reduce excessive traffic, but then show the future land use of an area as being suitable for SOME level of residential development. Opponents to a particular development project will often use preserving open space and minimizing traffic as definitive reasons why a development should be denied. But it’s important, and far more challenging, to review such guidance documents in their totality.
    One final comment about the Burrillville plant. It was voted down, unanimously, by the EFSB, which includes the current associate director of the division of planning. But it was the director of DEM, Janet Coit, who laid out, in exquisite detail, how the proponents of the plant had failed to prove a NEED for the facility…over a good 40 minutes or so. The board never had to address the environmental consequences of such a project, because those issues only get addressed once the need has been established. She deserves more than a little credit, as do the other members of the board. Given the administration’s outspoken advocacy for the plant, this may not have been an easy position to take.

    Kevin Flynn

  9. I wonder what the Energy Facilities Siting Board members, the ones who made the final decision on Invenergy last year, think about Mr. Flynn’s testimony below in paragraph #3?

    The opposition always suspected this, especially in light of "Raimondo’s promise to Invenergy," referenced by Rick in his first comment. Rick’s quote is accurate. The Governor delivered this promise at the press conference in 2015 announcing the Invenergy project. She had the president of Invenergy to one side of her on the dais, and the president of the RI Trades Union Council on the other. The response, "This is a done deal," quickly emerged whenever we attempted to argue, in private, the demerits of the project to politicians and bureaucrats in authority.

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