Resource-Devouring Dinosaurs Trample Rhode Island's Remaining Forests

The Rhode Island landscape features its share of now-vacant development projects that ignored state guide building principles. This big-box store in North Kingstown has been vacant for nearly five years. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The Rhode Island landscape features its share of now-vacant development projects that ignored state guide building principles. This big-box store in North Kingstown has been vacant for nearly five years. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI

Rhode Island seems determined to resurrect 20th-century dinosaurs. But crafty politicians and sly investors have changed the behemoths’ names to soothe public fears. Strip malls are now dynamic regional hubs of activity. A rest area is a travel plaza and welcome center. Natural-gas infrastructure is a bridge fuel. An office park is now called a corporate campus.

It takes open space to feed these old-school leviathans, but Statehouse “leadership” has little problem selling this dwindling Ocean State resource for political gain. To sell this giveaway to the public — besides renaming the beasts, of course — politicians make this new old world sound utopian.

They say stuff like dynamic regional hubs of activity will deliver the promise of a triple bottom line, generating returns to investors, spurring economic development and promoting environmental sustainability. The third leg supporting that pile of bullshit would be laughable if it wasn’t so condescending. Our elected representatives and their enablers have never explained how big-box stores, fast-food joints, fossil-fuel plants, concrete, clear-cutting and asphalt do anything but diminish the environment, and public health.

When they do feel inclined to answer a media question or address public concern, they spew talking points created by their handlers, saying the development project is a “win-win,” will include pedestrian walkways — in the 20th century they were called sidewalks — and will incorporate green infrastructure. A few trees surrounded by pavement, patches of grass or a collection of plants in a bioswale don’t remotely replace forests, fields and farmland.

Media follow-up questions aren’t allowed, or are routinely ignored. Residents have to beg to get an audience with the governor, unless there is a ribbon to be cut. Opponents are forced to sit through long meetings before they are allowed to briefly address the dinosaur masters. Each is given a few minutes to express his or her concerns, before lawmakers and/or their enablers and handlers shout, “Next!” Those on stage with bottled water routinely make it seem like they are doing you a favor by allowing you to speak.

Meanwhile, supporters meet with the governor and other Statehouse “leaders” in air-conditioned rooms closed to the media and the common folk. Elected officials and their surrogates speak free and easy at chamber of commerce events. They mostly decline invitations from environmental groups.

They embrace input from developers, investors and trade unions. They happily accept all campaign contributions. They ignore those who will be working the dinosaurs for minimum wage, unless, of course, these single parents, immigrants and people of color ask for a raise. Then, our elected representatives will basically tell the less fortunate that their greed will cripple the economy. They don’t seek input from the unions, if they even exist, that represent janitors, maids, cashiers and sandwich-makers. Their money is taken by an unfair tax system and spent to build more dinosaurs.

Those elected by special interests tell us that these new monstrosities, with the same genetic makeup of their 20th-century kin, will make the economy better, improve Rhode Islanders’ quality of life, create jobs and benefit the community.

For example, the new travel plaza and welcome center proposed for the woods of Hopkinton will, we have been told, offer more shopping, food and fuel options, and will be a “multimodal transit hub.”

In a press announcement issued by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the Ocean State’s congressional delegation and governor made the proposed rest area sound like it will be the first colony on Mars. And just like Mars, there won’t be any trees. The dinosaur will be built on 20 acres of forest near the Connecticut border.

Of course, none of the elected officials quoted in the press release made mention of the clear-cutting or the environmental impact of increased forest fragmentation. The increased amount of stormwater the rest area will generate will be managed by green initiatives, such as landscaped grasses, a handful of trees and a bioswale or two.

The release did, however, address a public-health concern, noting that the welcome center will help reduce “drowsy driving.”

Those behind the travel plaza act as if the project is some “Jetsons”-like destination unique to Rhode Island. Interstate 95 is 1,920 miles long and features about 50 travel plaza/welcome centers in 14 states, plus numerous other areas to rest and buy junk food.

In fact, just five years ago, Rhode Island actually had a welcome center on the northbound side of I-95, between exits 2 and 3. The state closed the facility because of “a lack of funds and changes in tourism trends nationwide.”

The new dinosaur, not to be built where the old one sits decaying, will welcome tourists with arms made of asphalt and concrete. It will be a food desert where once there was a forest.

The plaza, according to its grand plans, will feature a bus terminal for the chronically underfunded Rhode Island Public Transit Authority — which could bring expanded public transportation service to the area, or not — bicycle facilities and a park-n-ride lot that could go unused if RIPTA can’t afford to send more buses south.

Trucks making deliveries to this tourism oasis will likely have to pay a toll, because Rhode Island is among the worst states at maintaining its infrastructure. The Statehouse blames that on a lack of funding. Perhaps the $9 million Rhode Island is receiving in federal grant money to cut down Hopkinton’s trees could be used more effectively?

But, at least according to some of Rhode Island’s top-billed politicians, this travel plaza is going to send motorists — expect truckers — speeding to the Ocean State. Tourists and residents are going to converge there to buy Del’s Lemonade and coffee-flavored milk.

“This is an opportunity to build a first-class travel plaza that offers visitors and local residents new, convenient retail, food, fuel and travel options,” Reed said. “We want to ensure it’s a state-of-the-art facility with modern amenities that helps travelers stay connected while also showcasing all the state has to offer.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo was equally over-the-top. “We are working hard to build a statewide brand that showcases Rhode Island to the rest of the country as a great place to live, grow a business, and visit as a tourist or business traveler.”

If we are relying on a travel plaza hocking fast food, fossil fuels and T-shirts that read, “Rhode Island: The biggest little state in the union,” to showcase the Ocean State, we would be better off bringing back “Cooler & Warmer” and the video that featured Reykjavik.

“Improving access to public transportation in South County and adding a fueling station for electric vehicles are important steps toward reducing both congestion and pollution — important goals for our Ocean State,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is quoted in the welcome center’s gushing press release.

Some 40 miles to the north, in Burrillville, the Democrat supports the building of a natural-gas power plant and the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure. This particularly dirty dinosaur will impact about 200 acres of northern Rhode Island forestland, and many other ecosystems and people from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts and beyond.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., also says the proposed Hopkinton welcome center will be a game-changer. “Investing in local infrastructure projects like this is one of the most effective strategies we have to create good-paying jobs for Rhode Island families,” he said.

The project’s “good-paying” jobs will be short-lived. The environmental damage will be long-lasting. Those eventually employed at the travel plaza and welcome center, to sell T-shirts, flip burgers, microwave meats, pour frozen lemonade drinks, clean bathrooms, mop floors and explain what coffee milk is, will likely be paid $9.60 an hour and be left to deal with unfair scheduling practices.

Of course, next year, Rhode Island’s elected representatives could decide this class of ignored workers is worth 50 cents an hour more. This year, however, the lawmakers’ handlers didn’t think these people deserve the extra cash, so legislation to help the working poor was held for further study, a task force was created or some other procedural thing executed to kick the can further across the rest-area parking lot.

Opponents of the 50-cent hike, such as the Greater Providence and Northern Rhode Island chambers of commerce and the Dunkin' Donuts Franchisees of Rhode Island, noted such a move would mark the fifth consecutive year of a minimum-wage increase. They ignore the fact that $10.10 an hour still isn’t a living wage.

“Few, if any, Rhode Island workers have received a pay increase of this magnitude during the same time period,” John Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC), recently told the Providence Journal.

He must have forgotten nobody in the state makes less, expect maybe the kid who mows his lawn. Simmons also noted that Rhode Island already has one of the highest minimum wages in the country.

Last year, Dunkin’ Brands returned “more than $725 million to our shareholders, thereby underscoring the fact that our asset-light franchised business model is resilient to fluctuations in comparable store sales growth and should allow us to grow our earnings in the future,” according to the multinational’s 2015 annual report.

The Dunkin’ Donuts component of the parent company alone generated $614 million in revenue last year, according to the report.

Citizens Bank also enjoyed a prosperous 2015, with a reported net income of $840 million, according to its 2015 annual report.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which couldn’t even afford to keep the state’s previous I-95 welcome center open and has to pay a federal fine for being unable to properly manage stormwater runoff, is going to spend at least $3 million in taxpayer money to help move one of the largest banks in the United States from Cranston to the woods of Johnston.

The bank’s chairman, Bruce Van Saun, recently explained to the Providence Business News why Rhode Island needs another dinosaur in the middle of a forest.

“As a public company, we have to watch the bottom line, and I think the good news is that ultimately we settled on the Johnston site after going through that whole process and in a way that I think gets us the best of everything. We get an extremely well-situated location, we get a class-A campus and the run-rate of our costs is only modestly ahead of today's run rate and probably would be a little cheaper than if we stayed in Cranston.

“What you have to understand is the nature of our existing workforce: where they live and what they are used to doing. We have a suburban workforce that goes to work in their cars and is comfortable operating in that fashion. We currently have big operation floors in Cranston, which is really helpful in terms of how we operate and interact with each other. It’s hard to replicate that in any kind of downtown, skyscraper-type building. People like to [ask], ‘Is the Superman a white elephant?’ or, ‘Is there some blemish on the Superman Building?’ And all I would say to that is that any kind of skyscraper building, when you think about the criteria that I just went through, wouldn't have cut the mustard. And there's the cost, too. Being out in the suburbs and being able to build the way we want — we’re able to come in at a very attractive price point for getting all that we’re getting.”

Basically, one of Rhode Island’s last remaining corridors of forest is going to be impaired, wildlife habitat destroyed, taxpayer money spent and more contaminated stormwater generated so some 3,000 Citizens Bank employees can drive to work alone while the bank grows its bottom line.

Before ending the 2016 General Assembly session, lawmakers made sure to feed the dinosaurs, passing bills that, again, give developers what they want.

“Homeowners should get the full beneficial use of their land,” said Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, sponsor of the builder-friendly House bill.

Does that mean property owners looking to save money by installing small wind turbines in communities that ban or severely restrict their use are now free to do so? Does that mean homeowners who live in municipalities that currently ban backyard chickens can begin building coops?

Like Rhode Island’s new dinosaurs, the new law was given a clever name: the “Land Fairness Act.” Anyone who opposed it, and there were plenty, Shekarchi berated for not favoring the free-market principals of deregulation and the right of property owners, investors and developers to get the most money they can for developing open space. He also said cities and towns should be buying open space if they want to protect it.

Shekarchi’s suggestion came around the same time the General Assembly was defunding a state-mandated conservation organization. The Rhode Island State Conservation Committee was established by state law in 1944 to help meet the needs of local land users for the conservation of land and water.

Rhode Island no longer needs to teach people how to protect soil, farmland and forest, because those who contribute to election campaigns plan on paving it over, developing it or chopping it down.

The move will save the state about $36,000 annually, as each of Rhode Island’s three conservation districts received $12,024 a year. At one time, the districts received $50,000 each.

ecoRI News recently spoke by phone with Sara Churgin, district manager of the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District. She said these community service grants help keep doors open and lights on, because each district operates on a shoestring budget.

A noticeably shaken Churgin said the truly unfortunate thing about the surprise announcement was that so many lawmakers — she specifically mentioned House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed — don’t even know the districts exist. They certainly don’t understand or respect the services the districts have long provided.

To the dinosaur masters, the jobs of the three district managers don’t matter. They don’t fall under Rep. Cicilline’s idea of a good-paying job, mostly because they aren’t.

Rhode Island’s elected representatives — not all, of course, but enough with power to silence dissenting opinion — relentlessly pound home the idea that these dinosaurs are catalysts for Ocean State success. They’re not. They, at best, generate a slight bump in job creation. Of course, we could put people to work building stuff neighbors want and communities need in places that actually make sense.

The much-hyped "triple-bottom-line" development projects frequently end up becoming community eyesores, sitting vacant, mostly vacant or partially vacant after their usefulness is extinguished and/or their profitability overestimated. They do nothing to help the Ocean State’s impressive, but hurting, collection of natural resources. They will likely never be featured in a visit-beautiful-Rhode-Island video.

People don’t move to or visit Rhode Island to go bicycling at a travel plaza, to play ball or go for a walk in a corporate banking campus, or to listen to the relentless humming of a natural-gas compressor station. They come here to go swimming in beaches that, hopefully, aren’t polluted; to go hiking in the woods; to go birdwatching, fishing, surfing and boating; to enjoy the state's diverse collection of food, music, history and art.

Those attractions and job creators won’t leave for a better tax deal, became antiquated in five years when national tourism trends change or exasperate climate-change impacts.

Perhaps we should better focus on building, renovating and repairing things that complement Rhode Island’s strengths — waterways, wildlife, natural resources, food and culture. Perhaps we should better support the people and businesses developing renewable-energy systems.

We definitely need to stop building dinosaurs in the woods. We can start by questioning the stream of self-serving BS that routinely flows from the mouths of politicians and their handlers.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.