As seen in the Providence Journal Commentary on June 20, 2017
There are several narrowly focused and inadequately vetted efforts underway in this General Assembly session to amend Rhode Island’s land use laws in ways that could hurt the state’s prosperity and quality of place. Among the land use “reform” bills introduced are ones that would force municipalities to accept industrial-scale renewable energy facilities on farms in residential zones, reduce time frames for the review of development projects without regard to local staffing capacity and add expensive new legal notice requirements for zone changes.
Each of these is being considered with insufficient opportunity for appropriate input from all interested parties.
There’s a better way to reform Rhode Island’s intricate and carefully designed land use laws, one that can be timely and responsive to the need for economic growth with staying power. A good model for this important civic exercise are actions Rhode Island’s leaders took in the late 1980s.
At that time, Rhode Island’s land use laws were outdated and not equipped to provide municipalities with the innovative land development practices needed to encourage environmentally friendly growth. Moreover, the building industry rightfully wanted more consistency between communities regarding land use procedures. Rhode Island was also in the midst of a development boom and something thoughtful and comprehensive was needed to avoid long lasting mistakes and missed opportunities for quality development.
Instead of making piecemeal revisions to antiquated land use laws, the General Assembly back then wisely established a 23-member legislative commission comprised of key land-use stakeholders. It took courage and leadership not to settle for quick fixes with laws as far reaching economically and environmentally as those that govern land use. These laws affect a myriad of important issues for all Rhode Islanders such as public health, drinking water protection, sustainable economic growth and the enhancement of our quality of life.
The result of the commission’s deliberations was a major rewrite of the Comprehensive Planning, Zoning Enabling and Land Development and Subdivision Review Acts, the three primary statutes governing land use. This effort involved fact-finding, vetting, patience and compromise among all interested parties. This was an extraordinary accomplishment and catapulted Rhode Island from having one of the worst to one of the most effective sets of land use statutes in the United States, according to the American Planning Association.
Flash forward several decades, and Rhode Island’s land-use laws are once again in need of revision. Times change and these laws should reflect current conditions and land-use practices, as well as provide for a thorough but not burdensome review process that supports quality economic development in our urban and town centers.
To avoid unintended consequences from a piecemeal approach to changing our land use system, I strongly recommend that Rhode Island once again establish a broad-based legislative commission to carefully assess any and all revisions to our land use laws. These statutes are simply too important to be changed without first attempting to reach a working consensus. Rhode Island got land use reform right in the late 1980s and we can and should do it again.
Scott Wolf is executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.