House Commission Tackles Trifecta: Responsible Land Use, Need for Affordable Housing, Climate Change Mitigation
Skeptics worried effort will appease developers, ignore environmental protections
January 13, 2023
A Special House Commission on Land Use was created in 2021 to examine how Rhode Island is using and managing its 1,214 square miles. Critics of the ongoing effort, however, claim the outcome is predetermined: reduce regulations and local control to encourage more development.
The resolution to create the 18-member commission was introduced by Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, and Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski, D-Providence. Shekarchi’s law firm specializes in zoning and land-use permitting.
“Minor and Major Land Development in Rhode Island present challenges through the regulatory process, having an experienced firm with skill and proven ability greatly improves your chances for timely positive results,” according to the firm’s website.
During the 2013 General Assembly session, Shekarchi introduced a bill that would have prevented planning boards from requesting additional documents than those required at the outset of the application process. Opponents noted the legislation would prevent planning officials from asking a developer to determine if an unexpected issue, such as the discovery of an underground storage tank, was a public health threat.
ecoRI News was unable to schedule an interview with Shekarchi.
Shekarchi’s bill was one of 14 introduced that year to ease building regulations. Among those signed into law was the biggest offering to developers in 2013: the controversial “slopes” bill. It was co-sponsored by Blazejewski.
The legislation allows unbuildable sloped land to be included in determining buildable lot sizes. Previously, land that exceeded a certain incline was omitted from the calculation of lot sizes. Some municipalities, particularly those with rural areas, relied on the calculation to maximize open space to protect water quality and wetlands.
The change to this statewide standard has hindered state and municipal efforts to implement long-term plans to manage growth with concepts such as village centers and transportation-oriented development, according to planners and transit advocates.
The purpose of the Special House Commission on Land Use is to undertake a comprehensive study and a broad-based review of Rhode Island “land use, preservation, production, development, housing, environment, and regulation” and provide recommendations based upon this study and review that will enable the state to “ensure and promote land use that allows for sustainable and equitable economic growth.”
The resolution noted the importance of addressing three issues that are related to land use: the preservation, development, and regulation of land “in a way that properly manages the use of this important resource;” the need for more affordable housing; and the climate crisis.
Legislation to change two main land-use statutes — the Zoning Enabling Act and the Land Development and Subdivision Review Enabling Act — is the likely outcome. A 16-page commission document titled Rhode Island Land Use Legislation: Opportunities and Constraints outlines the “problems with existing legislation,” such as appeals being used to stop or slow projects.
Critics are worried the commission will produce a one-size-fits-all, developer-friendly remedy, like what happened in 2021 with freshwater wetlands regulations and with the slopes bill eight years earlier.
The new wetlands rules created different jurisdictional areas regulated by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council. They replaced local ordinances in favor of statewide standards, a longstanding request by developers.
The special commission has held 22 meetings, with the last one held Jan. 5. The next one is scheduled for Jan. 19. The commission’s study/review is expected to be complete by June, but the deadline could be extended again.
No minutes are taken — agendas are posted before each meeting but they are not kept online with the other materials associated with the commission’s work — but the meetings are recorded by Capitol TV.
So far, the meetings have largely featured builders and their lobbyists, housing advocates, and municipal planners. Input from the general public has been minimal, as the meetings, held in Room 101 at the Statehouse, typically begin at 2 p.m. on a weekday, making it difficult for most workers and students to attend.
The commission’s first meeting was held in early October 2021. During that meeting, commission member Patricia Reynolds, the city of Newport’s director of planning and economic development and a member of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) board, criticized public input into zoning and planning, saying CRMC and zoning boards sometimes “cave to public pressure and can’t always make a good decision.”
Reynolds said she wanted the commission to take steps to limit public comment, asking, “Where [in the approval process] does the public get the opportunity to weigh in and how does that sort of impact the boards and negatively or positively impact businesses and residences?”
Exeter resident Scott Millar, who has spent the past four decades doing planning and environmental work in Rhode Island, recently told ecoRI News he found the idea of eliminating or reducing public hearings or public comment “appalling.”
“I can’t even imagine anyone would even seriously consider doing that,” said Millar, chair of the Exeter Planning Board. “As a planning board member, I see that as some of the most valuable input that I can receive on a development proposal — and normally that’s not people coming to the meeting with pitchforks trying to stop a development. They’re just providing their insight to issues that we need to be concerned about because they live in the area.
“The public doesn’t have the right to say no to development, if it’s already allowed by zoning. They’re just providing feedback to make that development fit better in their neighborhood. And I see nothing wrong with that.”
During that initial meeting, the commission’s chair, Thomas Deller, planning director for the city of Central Falls, noted that in conversations with Shekarchi he learned the speaker of the House was interested in finding out what land Rhode Island has that can be developed. He also said Shekarchi is interested in streamlining the development process.
Millar and others interested in what the commission is planning are concerned the importance of ecosystem services and environmental health will be largely ignored, as recent lawmaking has demonstrated.
“I strongly support the need for more housing; it’s a very serious problem,” Millar said. “But how we achieve this goal must be compatible with conserving Rhode Island’s most important natural areas. That’s my concern. The way that we achieve the goal for more housing is just as important as the goal itself, because throughout my career I’ve seen that poorly planned growth has had significant impacts to natural resources that could have been avoided by following better development practices. The two objectives don’t need to be mutually exclusive.”
For example, he noted he is concerned about creating lot sizes that would be too small to yield an adequate water supply, or the continued building in coastal watersheds that are already being impacted by elevated nutrient levels that are leading to the eutrophication of salt ponds.
“I was involved in developing a management plan for the Scituate Reservoir watershed for the governor’s task force back in the mid-’80s and we made it very clear that towns needed to maintain large lot sizes to protect the integrity of that vitally important drinking water supply,” said Millar, who worked in the Division of Statewide Planning for a dozen years and at the DEM for 23. “And now I’m hearing people saying, ‘Well, you know, we need to break down these large lots and we have to have statewide minimum lot sizes, we have to mandate multifamily.’ All of these mandates could create serious problems, because not all lots are going to be able to accommodate density. It’s frustrating for people like myself who have been involved with this for many years that people just seem to have forgotten why some of these policies were established in the first place.”
He said multifamily homes are exactly the type of housing Exeter and the state needs more of, but that fact needs to be balanced with planning that protects forestland, wildlife habitats, waterways, and aquifers. He’s worried unintended environmental consequences will be ignored to make development easier.
Millar, the director of community assistance and conservation at Grow Smart Rhode Island, noted the Rhode Island Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Act, passed three decades ago, is a “great statute” because it requires every municipality have a comprehensive plan that must be approved by the state.
“A town must address about 15 different issues that are elements of the State Guide Plan — housing, economic development, natural resources, recreation, transportation,” he said. “It really forced town officials to sit down to think about where are we going to have housing but still maintain our policies to protect the natural resources in our community that are important. There are trade-offs and there’s a balancing act, but the process has been working.”
At the commission’s most recent meeting, Jane Weidman, Charlestown’s town planner, noted there is a need for a statewide approach to Rhode Island’s housing issue and a need for an analysis that shows where this increased housing should be located. She also noted municipalities need staffing and resources, especially planning departments that have only one or two people.
“We are governed by a trifecta of land-use laws that have been in place for 30 years, and I believe those laws have worked very well,” Weidman said. “The planners’ perspective is that these laws do need some adjustments and they need to be modernized and to address the concerns that have developed over the last 30 years. … An assumption that we have 39 failing ordinances or 39 ordinances that actually need an overhaul or an update is not accurate.”
Many of the builders and their representatives who have spoken at the commission’s nearly two dozen meetings have repeated the same talking points that have filled the Statehouse for the past few decades: uniform statewide vesting provisions for zoning; mandatory time frames for zoning boards, with approval by default if not met; enforce restrictions on the limits of expensive plans such as drainage and traffic; regulatory uncertainty; the process needs to be streamlined.
In a June letter to Gov. Dan McKee, which is part of the commission’s collection of documents, the Rhode Island Builders Association asked to delay the implementation of the new freshwater wetlands regulations until the commission completes its work.
The association’s executive director, John Marcantonio, said the new wetlands rules should be coordinated with the forthcoming new land use and affordable housing laws. Marcantonio is a member of the House commission.
“[W]e are rather confident that the new wetland regs — when implemented in July — will trigger a reactionary response from municipalities as they adjust to State wetland regs by changing their land use ordinances to counter the effects on their local planning and zoning processes,” Marcantonio wrote. “This newly paved road will then be followed by new State Land Use laws that will then either remove, replace, limit, or empower new local rules. In the meantime, all this constant change will create the potential for irreputable harm and confusion to local property owners, developers, engineers, and builders as we/they try to implement and build the housing needed to deal with our current shortages.”
Rhode Island’s housing crisis didn’t appear overnight. The problem has been long in the making. During the past few decades, most of Rhode Island’s new housing stock has arrived in the form of suburban sprawl. Much of it is second homes and McMansions, and little of it is affordable.
Antiquated zoning laws that encourage the development of single-family homes and restrict density housing are a major reason why. Builders also make a better profit constructing these expensive homes.
In late December 2021, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Planning Association submitted to the commission its recommendations for improved land use. Among its suggestions: state mandated time periods for completeness and review of applications; recognize climate change as an issue by statute and give municipalities the authority address it as needed; consider siting of renewable energy facilities, the hardening of infrastructure, and the potential relocation or abandonment of facilities in a manner ensuring appropriate public engagement and assurance of equitable solutions; and discourage solar installations in areas that may be better used for housing and habitat protection.
The commission was broken down into four working groups — Comprehensive Planning, chair Meredith Brady, associate director of planning for Division of Statewide Planning; Subdivision & Land Development, chair attorney Dylan Conley; Zoning, chair Nicole Verdi of Ørsted; and Housing, chair Kristina Brown of HousingWorks RI.
Both the Housing and Zoning working groups have offered recommendations. The goal of the Housing group is to address the shortage of housing units statewide; create more tools to enable housing development; and improve existing processes of development review.
The Housing working group has recommended, among other things: reform statewide minimum lot sizes; allow for ease of redevelopment of single-family stock to two-family or small multifamily by right; enable the ability to convert large residential buildings to smaller units where feasible regardless of zoning limitations; establish/mandate areas throughout the state that allow multifamily development by right; enable communities to regulate short-term rental; identify areas where future residential development could benefit by reducing or removing parking requirements; streamline approval processes for development, especially residential development; eliminate public hearings for development that conforms to zoning and is not seeking variances or waivers.
This working group also posed the following question in its recommendations: If municipalities do not meet expectations — 10% of housing is affordable or other benchmarks — should the state step in similar to the school takeover process?
It also suggested instead of a 10% affordable housing target, how about establishing a growth-rate metric or target for residential growth in each municipality?
The goal of the Zoning working group is to create a process that is “clear, concise, and rational, provides greater efficiency while protecting local community flexibility, and takes implicit bias and impacts from climate change into consideration.”
This group, in a draft document, has recommended: create a process within zoning that streamlines small applications; standardize and make clear the standards for use variances; clarify the relationship between zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans; create a standard for preexisting/historic uses; create enabling flexibility development legislation that encourages greater density through zoning.
Millar said the state needs to encourage new housing where residents can be serviced by either rail and/or bus. “Otherwise, we’re just encouraging more people to be driving,” he said.
Nearly 80% of Rhode Islanders already live within a 10-minute walk of a transit stop, but a lack of funding and support for public transit makes it inconvenient and unreliable.
A report published in 2019 by Grow Smart Rhode Island, Roger Williams University, and HousingWorks RI estimated the capacity for accommodating up to 73,000 new housing units and 25,000 new jobs in transit-oriented development areas in five Rhode Island municipalities.
The report examined the opportunities, constraints, and challenges of transit-oriented development (TOD) at specific sites along Rhode Island’s rail corridors and/or high-frequency bus routes in Newport, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Westerly, and Woonsocket.
The 249-page report didn’t include Pawtucket, Central Falls, Providence, and Warwick because these cities “already conducted professional TOD analyses, made necessary zoning changes and are in various stages of implementation.”
“We think the timing is right in Rhode Island to double down on TOD as a proven strategy for growing our economy and new housing opportunities in a sustainable way,” Scott Wolf said when the report was released. “Prioritizing TOD will capitalize on our compactness and density and respond to the strong market demand for walkable urban neighborhoods.”
Rhode Island has no shortage of vacant buildings and mills, some of which are owned by the state, that are near non-car transit options.
Another possible tool to help Rhode Island increase affordable housing, protect the environment, and mitigate the climate crisis, is the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Launched in 2009 by the Obama administration, the initiative brought together federal agencies to better coordinate policies, programs, and funding regarding affordable housing, transportation, and environmental protection.
Among the ideas the initiative highlighted that could be modeled by Rhode Island are:
Develop safe, reliable, and economical transit choices to decrease household transportation costs, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote public health.
Expand location- and energy-efficient housing choices for people of all ages, incomes, races, and ethnicities to increase mobility and lower the combined cost of housing and transportation.
Enhance the characteristics of all communities — rural, urban, or suburban — by investing in healthy, safe, and walkable neighborhoods.