R.I.’s Land-Use Vision and Climate Efforts Blindsided By Shortsighted Development
July 5, 2020
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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