Opinion

Rhode Island Must Plan Carefully When Adding Housing Stock

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Rhode Island needs a clear game plan to address the state’s housing needs to avoid the unintended consequences from new development. These negative consequences can exceed the capacity of existing infrastructure and services to support new housing. In addition new development can negatively impact our important natural resources. I strongly support the need to build more housing, but how Rhode Island achieves the goal for more housing is critical.

Housing advocates have stated Rhode Island needs approximately 35,000 new housing units over the next 10 years to meet existing needs. That is more housing than is currently built within the city of Cranston. The key issue that must be resolved is how Rhode Island can accommodate the housing it needs while carefully planning to properly accommodate this new growth. The new housing laws adopted last year, with more bills pending this year, don’t consider the need for supporting infrastructure or environmental protection. Moreover, new housing developed in a random, spread-out pattern can work against Rhode Island’s carbon reduction mandates by accelerating more forest loss and encouraging more vehicle miles traveled. This can make it much harder for Rhode Island to comply with the Act on Climate.

There seems to be a misconception regarding the ability of state regulations to prevent impacts from new development. The state has excellent regulations to minimize impacts to wetlands and water quality. However, it has been my experience, as a former state Department of Environmental Management administrator, that state regulations, by themselves, are not adequate to fully protect wetlands and water quality. In addition, there are no state regulations to protect farms, forests or habitat from development. Therefore, municipal land use authority is needed to establish appropriate density and intensity of land development within areas of environmental concern.

For example, low-density development in areas that provide our drinking water is critical to protect invaluable drinking water supplies that Rhode Island needs to sustain growth statewide. We should not take any risks with polluting our drinking water or exceeding the capacity of some limited supplies. Proactive planning and creative zoning by municipalities is also necessary to provide the municipal services to support growth while avoiding impacts to natural, cultural and recreational resources. Unfortunately, the legislative approach to creating more housing has been to reduce municipal land use authority, and establish more statewide control that will likely have unintended consequences.

The need for more housing should not be implemented without considering environmental, infrastructure, and all the other issues municipalities are required to assess in accordance with the state Comprehensive Planning Act. To meet Rhode Island’s housing needs, it will require better cooperation between state and municipal governments. Adopting inflexible state mandates does not encourage good partnerships or foster creative approaches. Instead, municipalities need more financial and technical assistance to help them establish innovative approaches to housing that can be customized to meet municipal needs.

Each of our cities and towns have unique characteristics and what works in one may not work in another, but by working together, Rhode Island can solve the housing crisis  in a way that avoids unintended consequences and appreciates the nuances of each community to maintain our beautiful state of Rhode Island.

Scott Millar has more than 40 years of experience with environmental science, policy, and land use planning.

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  1. Scott is right. There are unintended consequences to many overall policies especially if those deciding are not aware of some of the issues, such as communities with septic and wells, forested areas and farmland. We need an integrated approach from specialists in conservation, wildlife, housing, infrastructure, forestry that is not just about harvesting but about health and habitat, water, engineering etc. etc. It is easy to have tunnel vision being expert in one field or maybe not an expert at all and not consulting research and expertise in another field. Although planners and land use folks have been included they are not always acknowledged for their input or their advice taken. Also, developers are building market-rate as prices have risen, and nonprofits are not adequately funded nor have the personnel to develop lower-priced homes. Increased density should not be the main or only incentive to developers but to have some offset from the State instead. Increased density in some areas is detrimental. Land needs to be assessed also for its environmental value. If it is great, conserve it. If it is less useful like previously graveled areas etc then with help these could be developed at an appropriate density with lower-priced income-related homes. These might not have to be always deeded but there has to be a way that they are not gobbled up by wealthier for second homes or bought by those who can afford more. We need more creativity without affecting our environment. It is hard hit enough already and resources are finite. We see too many smaller, once affordable, homes being made into “mansions” thereby precluding them ever being affordable again. The 10% mandate needs to be revised depending on area context.

  2. Thank you, Scott and Frances! I felt like such an old, outdated hippie when I heard about the new mandates from the state and immediately thought: Developers will have a field day! And: We will lose what little open space we have left.

    We need to change our zoning and planning rules from the 20th century that resulted in unchecked sprawl, including the vocabulary, like using the term “unimproved land” when referring to native flora and fauna-filled fields. We need less impermeable surfaces, less lawn, less artificial turf (I’m talking to you, school athletic fields) and more native trees, shrubs and plants.

    One possible answer: strip malls. Here on Aquidneck Island we have several strip malls one story high with giant, usually half-empty, parking lots. Why not add a second and maybe third story with apartments? We could add some green space. The locations are often on a bus line and near amenities like supermarkets and pharmacies.

    Rhode Island is the second-most developed state behind New Jersey. The topsoil that we heedlessly peel off to build houses, roads, and garages took thousands of years to evolve. We need to be creative and thoughtful and find ways to avoid destroying more of our “unimproved” land.

  3. The surprising thing is how state senators and representatives representing the 39 cities and towns have so recklessly approved land use laws that weaking local governmental controls in their own communities. The concerns raised here by Scott Millar identify resource issues that have very real consequences that either cannot be undone or will require costly mitigation if mitigation is even considered worth the cost. Once something is lost it is lost forever in the world of development. The things that replace that which is lost often don’t live up to the hype.

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