Overall 2016 was another very good legislative session for the smart growth agenda, with the Governor’s existing urban and transit oriented economic development package renewed while critical new investments were also approved for our transportation infrastructure through the controversial, but sorely needed “Rhode Works” initiative.
The Governor and the General Assembly also agreed to put additional investments on the November ballot in the form of Green Economy and Housing Opportunity bonds – bonds that, if approved, will enhance economic opportunity for all Rhode Islanders and safeguard Rhode Island’s outstanding quality of place. There was some forward movement too for continuing to encourage rehab of our exceptional historic building stock in our urban and town centers. The scheduled June 30, 2016 sunset for the existing State Historic Tax credit program was extended by one year, giving us and our allies time to advocate for new funding and a longer life span for the program. Meanwhile, important changes were made in the Rebuild RI Tax Credit program, changes that we believe will make this program a more feasible complement to the State and Federal Historic Tax credit in the drive for historic rehab based community revitalization.
Smart Economic Development
Several versions of bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate to extend the lifespan of the State Historic Preservation Tax Credit program (“HTC”) that was reinstated in 2013 and to replenish its funds. The 2013 legislation had a built-in Sunset provision scheduled to terminate (or sunset) the HTC on June 30, 2016. The expiration of this tax credit would be detrimental to the Rhode Island economy as there are 12 projects currently on the waiting list for the HTC, and these projects represent a major potential engine for community revitalization, sustainable economic growth and expansion of municipalities’ tax base. Fortunately, the FY2017 budget did extend the Sunset provision to June 30, 2017. While this is not as much support or protection as we had hoped for, it provides us the time necessary to fight for the replenishment and long-term extension of this program. Ideally we would like legislation that builds off of H-8183 by creating a multi-year commitment of at least $10 million annually to the Historic Tax Credit program.
Re-Build Rhode Island Tax Credit | Budget Article 15 Sub A | Passed
Last year, as part of the Raimondo Administration Economic Comeback Agenda, the Legislature enacted the Rebuild RI Real Estate Tax Credit. This (re)development incentive program was authorized to award up to $60M over 5 years. We believe this tax credit is important for attracting private investment to transit-oriented development and redevelopment in our urban & town centers and transit corridors. In response to input from us and our allies, the Administration also included in the program an opportunity for small historic rehab projects to be exempted from the project size requirements in place for other eligible applicants.
However, earlier this year we heard concerns from a number of our allies in the development field that some of the program’s requirements and the way the Administration was interpreting them were reducing the program’s potential economic attractiveness and impact. At the request of one of our long time legislative champions, Representative Jay O’Grady, we organized an April 18, 2016 discussion among developers and HTC stakeholders about their early experiences with the new Rebuild Rhode Island Tax Credit and their suggestions for improving it. The burden imposed on developers to provide a significant return on investment to the state for the privilege of receiving the tax credit was highlighted. Several argued that this requirement makes the program a low-interest loan initiative rather than a tax credit, even though the credits are considered by tax credit savvy attorneys to be a federal “taxable” event. Concerns were also raised that the current version of the Rebuild RI program could not be used in conjunction with the Federal Historic Tax Credit. From a historic rehab standpoint this had to be considered a major stumbling block because the pairing of the Federal Historic Tax Credit with the State Historic Tax Credit has been a prerequisite for the success of most of the several hundred successful historic rehab projects in RI implemented over the last 14 years.
We had several opportunities during the first half of the year to share these concerns with the RI Commerce Corporation.
To their credit and that of the General Assembly, many of these concerns were addressed in the recently enacted version of the FY2017 State Budget. The most important improvement being that the Commerce Corporation may now make a loan or equity investment as an alternative incentive to the provision of tax credits so long as the applicant otherwise qualifies for all of the required criteria. The updated Rebuild RI Tax Credit also specifies that there will be a focus placed on development in the I-195 land in order to spark economic growth in this strategic statewide economic asset. These are important steps towards improving the laudable Rebuild RI initiative and making it a more powerful tool for community revitalization.
Reduction to the Annual Budget of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission | Passed
The Raimondo Administration’s FY2017 Budget document proposed reducing funding for Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission’s modest budget which would have necessitated cutting a staff member from the Commission’s already small team. In written testimony submitted to both the House and Senate Finance Committees we argued against this cut because the work of the RIHPHC is critical for a well-functioning State Historic Tax Credit Program. Unfortunately the Administration’s proposed cut was retained by the General Assembly so the Commission will have to adjust accordingly.
In late May 2015, the Raimondo Administration announced a bold proposal for investing significant new resources to make repairs to Rhode Island’s crumbling roads, bridges and sidewalks and to invest in expanded bus and rail transit. The proposal aimed to bring Rhode Island’s bridges into 90% sufficiency within ten years. Held for further study, the proposal was revised in January 2016 to account for, among other things, increased federal aid in the December 2015 FAST Act signed by President Obama. The revised proposal relies on approximately $45M in heavy truck toll proceeds and those proceeds account for less than 10% of the $5.2B 10-year RhodeWorks plan, a plan that includes investments in mass transit ($80M) and pedestrian and biking infrastructure ($128M). Grow Smart RI was among the first business-friendly organizations that actively promoted passage of the proposal, and we were pleased to be joined by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, among others.
We proudly endorsed the Blackstone Valley Economic Revitalization Act of 2016 which would have provided $10M toward the cost of implementing a Pawtucket / Central Falls Commuter Rail Station, located near the intersection of Dexter Street and Barton Street. We believe that restoring commuter rail service in this densley populated area would connect residents with much needed job and educational opportunities throughout Rhode Island, as well as in the nearby Boston market. We also believe that a commuter rail station in this area would help to stimulate redevelopment and adaptive reuse of an estimated 2 million square feet of underutilized or vacant mill space in the immediate vicinity of the proposed station location. While the legislation did not pass, partial funding for the Pawtucket/Central Falls train station (estimated at $40M) was included in Amendment #7 to the FFY 13-16 State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) for $500,000. Another $15.7M is included in the draft FFY 2017-2025 STIP (see page 302 of the STIP). And in April 2016, RIDOT submitted an application for a federal TIGER grant in the amount of $14.5M for the project (grant awards are typically announced in the fall).
Agriculture & Food Systems
LASA Grants Funding continued, but not as initially proposed in State Budget Article 20 | Passed as part of RIDEM Budget|
One of the main priorities for food and agriculture this session has been to ensure funding for the Local Agriculture and Seafood small grants program (LASA). The LASA grant program is now in its third year and represents a proven innovative public-private partnership in which private foundations have matched the funding available from the state to make up the grant pool. LASA grants have been used for a variety of innovative initiatives, including: support for a Rhode Island seafood marketing and branding campaign; efforts of the African Alliance of Rhode Island to help immigrant and refugee farmers acquire more growing space, increase crop production to meet the growing demand for ethnic specialty crops and to improve marketing expertise; and capacity-building for the South County Farm to Market Initiative. We urged that to protect this crucial program the state continue to allocate general funds for this grant and technical assistance program. These general funds are crucial because, if obtained, private foundations have committed to match parts of the program. Last year alone the general fund appropriation of $100,000 was matched by another $130,000 of private funding. Stand alone LASA funding was protected this year through the Department of Environmental Management Budget which pledged $100,000 to the LASA grant program.
Municipal Training on Addressing Development in Flood Plains (H-8101 | Failed |
For more than fifteen years, Grow Smart RI has facilitated a community planning training program to help community leaders proactively address challenges and opportunities of growth and development. One of the increasing challenges to municipalities is that of planning for development near flood plains at a time of climate change and rising seas. In fact, Rhode Island may be more at risk than most from these threats. Our compact state could become even smaller due to continued erosion of our shoreline. It is critical for our communities and leaders to learn how to be resilient and to use best practices in development in and near flood plains. For this reason we supported the Municipal Training on Development in Flood Plains to ensure that a Planning Board/Commission member receives a modest two hours of training every two years on the important topic of development in a flood plain and the effects of sea level rise. Unfortunately this legislation was not successful, but we remain dedicated to working to prepare our state for the future effects of climate change, and we believe this starts at the community level.
Community Investment Bonds
$35M Green Economy Bond | Passed as part of Budget Article 5 and will now be presented to voters|
As part of the many important bonds that will be decided by voters in November 2016, Grow Smart RI supported the Green Economy Bond. The Green Economy Bond is a proposal by the Raimondo administration to invest $35M in environmental and recreational resources as follows: (a) Historic State Park Development Program for major capital improvements to State properties, including Fort Adams State Park, Brenton Point, Colt State Park and Goddard Memorial State Park: (b) State Land Acquisition Program to acquire fee simple interest or conservation easements to open space, farmland, watershed, and recreation lands with matching funds from federal and private entities: (c) State Bikeway Development Program to design and construct bikeways, including the completion of the Blackstone River Bikeway and the South County Bikeway: (d): Brownfield Remediation and Economic Development: (e) Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program: (f) Local Recreation Development Matching Grant Program and (g) Local Land Acquisition Matching Grant Program. We helped to lead the charge with more than 25 other nonprofits and coalitions to ensure that this bond would be included in the budget. We will work with our allies throughout the coming months to ensure that this important funding opportunity for smart growth projects is voted into law.
$50M Affordable Housing Bond | Passed as part of Budget Article 5 and will now be presented to voters|
Originally proposed as a $40M bond, the amount that was authorized by the General Assembly increased by $10M to $50M. With RI rents continuing to increase significantly and studies showing an unacceptably high percentage of Rhode Islanders overburdened by high housing costs, there is a compelling case for a new State investment in the construction of affordable housing. This is especially timely and necessary because the funds from the previous Affordable Housing Bond of 2012, backed by Grow Smart RI, are scheduled to be fully expended sometime this year. Moreover, RI continues to lag considerably behind our Southern New England neighbors in our level of per capita spending on affordable housing. This bond provides funding for the Housing Resources Commission to develop affordable housing opportunity programs through the redevelopment of existing structures and/or new construction. This bond also allows the state to provide funding for the improvement of properties that are blighted or in need of revitalization, including residential and commercial properties and public and community spaces. This legislation is crucial to future housing opportunity in our state and to future smart growth. We will continue to work to ensure that this proposed bond is approved by the voters.
$70M Port Infrastructure Bond | Passed as part of Budget Article 5 and will now be presented to voters|
Grow Smart RI believes that Rhode Island’s ports are a major, underutilized asset to our state’s transportation system, economy and a growing marine trade industry, and that they warrant ongoing investments. Over the last several years the Port of Davisville in Quonset has become a major North American importer for automobiles, generating significant capital for our state. Grow Smart RI supported the original Port Bond proposal to invest $70M in the maintenance, improvement, and modernization of the Port at Quonset, including Pier 2. In its testimony, Grow Smart RI also drew attention to the needs of ProvPort to improve its competitiveness as one of only two deepwater ports in New England. Following our testimony, the bond language was modified to reduce the amount allocated to Quonset and to provide $20M to increase ProvPort terminal capacity by funding the acquisition (and associated infrastructure improvements) of up to 25 acres of land located between Allens Avenue and the Providence River. Grow Smart RI is currently evaluating the specifics elements of that proposal to determine if we will support public passage of the referendum question as modified.
OTHER BILLS THAT GROW SMART RI MONITORED
HIGHER EDUCATION BOND
Leveraging Higher Education to Create 21st Century Jobs Bond $45,500,000 (Budget Article 5)
Passed General Assembly and will be presented to voters
Allows the State of Rhode Island to issue general obligation bonds, refunding bonds, and temporary notes in an amount not to exceed forty-five million five hundred thousand dollars ($45,500,000) to make capital investments in higher education-related projects, to be allocated as follows: (a) University of Rhode Island College of Engineering $25,500,000 Provides twenty-five million five hundred thousand dollars ($25,500,000) to renovate and construct an addition on Bliss Hall, one of the University of Rhode Island College of Engineering’s oldest buildings. This project is the second phase of a comprehensive program to replace outdated buildings with a major new building and to renovate and build additions to the existing complex of buildings serving the University of Rhode Island College of Engineering. (b) University of Rhode Island Affiliated Innovation Campus Program $20,000,000 Provides twenty million dollars ($20,000,000) to build one or more innovation campuses involving business collaborations with the University of Rhode Island and may include other higher education institutions where cutting-edge research can be turned into new products, services and businesses.
CONSERVATION AND PRESERVATION RESTRICTIONS ON REAL PROPERTY (S-2233 Sub A)
The act provides clarity to courts when deciding whether to grant amendments to conservation restrictions and ensures that the decision is in the public interest.
SUBDIVISION OF LAND (H-7651 Sub A)
Provides that wetland buffers are not excluded from the calculation of buildable lot areas, minimum lot sizes or in the calculation of buildable lots or units.
RHODE ISLAND COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING AND LAND USE ACT (H-7696 Sub A)
Provides Rhode Island towns and cities more time to develop detailed and important comprehensive land use plans into conformance with the provisions of the Rhode Island Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Regulation Act. Extends deadline by a year to July 1, 2017
LAND DEVELOPMENT AND SUBDIVISION REVIEW–UNIFIED DEVELOPMENT REVIEW (H-7833 Sub A / S-2829 Sub A
Amends the provisions of the law pertaining to subdivisions and zoning ordinances to provide for unified development review by local planning and zoning boards or commissions.
RHODE ISLAND PUBLIC TRANSIT AUTHORITY
Provides that the Governor’s appointments to the RIPTA authority shall include a regular user of fixed-route RIPTA transpiration and also a disabled person.
PROPERTY SUBJECT TO TAXATION – BURRILLVILLE
Authorizes the town of Burrillville to extend its tax-stabilization program to cover mixed-use properties.
PROPERTY SUBJECT TO TAXATION
This act would create, subject to town council approval, a tax exemption/stabilization plan for certain property located in the town of West Warwick, also known as the Arctic Village redevelopment zone.
FARMLAND PRESERVATION ACT
This legislation allows the Agricultural Lands Preservation Commission to resell land without being subject to the right to first purchase by the municipality.
AGRICULTURE FUNCTIONS OF DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT
Extends the deadline for the Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management council to promulgate standards for freshwater wetland buffers and setbacks into state rules and regulation for another six months.