Open Season on Rhode Island’s ‘Special’ Places

Nearly 30 percent, and growing, of Rhode Island’s land total has been developed and covered by impervious surfaces such as parking lots, like this one in Lincoln. (ecoRI News)

Nearly 30 percent, and growing, of Rhode Island’s land total has been developed and covered by impervious surfaces such as parking lots, like this one in Lincoln. (ecoRI News)

Lack of leadership and never-ending development pressures stress farmland and forestland year-round

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

The Ocean State’s collection of natural resources is frequently called “special.” Rhode Island can’t talk about the greatness of local food enough. But many of the state’s collective actions work against the very commodities we enjoy praising.

Well-meaning Rhode Island bureaucrats frequently promote the state’s support of a regional project touting the ambitious goal of producing 50 percent of the food New England consumes from its six states by 2060.

Last year, at the one-year anniversary of the Warren-based food incubator Hope & Main, their boss, Gov. Gina Raimondo, announced that a statewide food and agricultural plan was in the works. Earlier this month, Sue AnderBois was hired to serve as Rhode Island’s first food chief. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Protection (DEM) hosts summer farmers markets at state-owned properties.

Unfortunately, when it comes to funding and planning for real growth of local food or protecting special places, the state’s elected officials are often holding out their hands, routinely ignoring taxpayer-funded plans or giving more leeway to developers.

The state’s new food-chief job is being funded through grants from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, The John Merck Fund and Main Street Resources. After two years, the private donors are hoping DEM can come up with $70,000 or so annually to keep the position funded.

The Rhode Island Local Agriculture and Seafood Act (LASA) grants program was created in 2012 to support the growth, development and marketing of local food and seafood. The state’s investment of $100,000 is being supplemented by $130,000 in matching funds from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation.

Earlier this month, to celebrate Ag Day and announce this year’s LASA recipients, DEM sent out a press release filled with wonderful quotes — complete with exclamation points — about Rhode Island agriculture, the green economy, jobs and local food.

“Rhode Islanders take great pride in their agricultural heritage and thriving local food scene,” Raimondo is quoted in the release. “It is part of our identity as a state, and increasingly, local food and agriculture are hotbeds for innovation and entrepreneurship. Small business is the backbone of our economy in Rhode Island, and I am proud of this investment in our green industries and the many new businesses and working families supported by them. I applaud all partners involved in growing our green economy; this is a great example of how Rhode Islanders are working together to make our state stronger.”

For the most part, Rhode Island uses the growing trend of public-private partnerships to help lawmakers fund initiatives and programs not high on their priority lists. The benefits, in the case of LASA’s annual “green food and farming dollars,” however, are reduced when Rhode Island’s land-use practices favor buildings, banks and impervious surfaces over crops, farms and open space. Generous morsels of grant funding for local food projects and a privately funded food czar can’t compete with exit ramps, travel plazas and fossil-fuel interests.

Rhode Island farmland is among the most expensive in the country, and, like the state’s woodlands, agricultural land is being lost to development. The true value of both are routinely ignored in favor of 400,000-square-foot footprints, McMansions and parking lots. For example, a corporate banking campus recently proposed for open space in Johnston, which many would argue belongs in Rhode Island’s infrastructure-heavy urban core and not built anew in the woods, has the giddy support of Statehouse leadership.

“The prime land to develop in Rhode Island now is agricultural land and forestland,” said John Campanini Jr., the longtime director of the Rhode Island Tree Council. “Our land-based resources, soils, trees and plants, haven’t gotten the attention and funding needed to repair themselves. We keep increasing our impervious surface landscape.”

Rhode Island’s diverse collection of natural resources, and the many benefits it provides, is constantly chipped away at for the sake of economic development. Instead of managing development in a sensible and balanced manner, the Statehouse annually passes laws lobbied for and written by builders.

Just this month a Senate bill was introduced that would make unbuildable zones around streams and ponds included in the calculation that determines how many dwellings can be built on a piece of property.

The bill was introduced less than a year after new statewide standards for wetland buffers were passed. The 2015 legislation was supported by both environmentalists and developers, but those same environmentalists are miffed that builders now want to institute new wetland standards before the forthcoming ones are even in place.

There’s no shortage of vacant buildings and mills in Rhode Island — the Superman Building that anchors the Providence skyline quickly comes to mind — and thousands of acres of brownfields dot the state's landscape. These properties are often ignored. Too expensive to remediate; too much paperwork; just too much work. Tax incentives and grant funding aren’t enough to convince many developers to put in the necessary work, so lawmakers and their appointed board cronies support the development of future brownfields, say, in the woods of Burrillville, with little political pushback.

It's made easier and cheaper to rip up "special" places and prime agricultural land — the University of Rhode Island did just that four years ago to make room for more parking — than it is to renovate, remediate or reuse. Just ask the chairman of Citizens Bank.

The proposed 420,000-square-foot corporate banking campus would be built on 109 acres of forestland in Johnston. (Citizens Bank)

The proposed 420,000-square-foot corporate banking campus would be built on 109 acres of forestland in Johnston. (Citizens Bank)

Impervious cover
New England lacks a hearty supply of local food largely because the amount of land producing it has significantly dwindled. The six states have some 14.5 million people, but only about 5 percent of the land, less than 2 million acres, is farmed.

Rhode Island alone is losing about 6 acres of open space daily, much of it to development, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The state’s land cover is still about 50 percent forest, but that number has decreased some 10 percent in the past century.

Since the 1940s, Rhode Island has lost about 80 percent of its farmland. Today, only about 17 percent is agriculturally active, according to the USDA.

It’s no surprise then that developed land ranks as Rhode Island’s second-most land cover, at nearly 30 percent. The remaining 20 percent or so includes farmland, wetlands and grassland, according to the USDA.

By 2050, the U.S. Forest Service projects southern New England's three states will be more than half urban land: Rhode Island, 70.5 percent urban; Massachusetts, 61; and Connecticut, 60.9.

“We’re losing the most forestland in the country,” Campanini said. “That’s a bad thing.”

With agricultural land already trailing development in terms of coverage, this trend doesn’t bode well for Rhode Island upholding its portion of the “50 by 60” food production goal. Currently, about 90 percent of the food consumed in New England comes from outside the region. The Ocean State only produces about 1 percent of the food consumed within its borders.

The local food movement can’t be built with attaboys/girls, social-media shout-outs, task forces and talk, especially when Rhode Island government clings to 20th-century development practices. Right now, in three forested areas, the state supports the building of a corporate banking campus, a fossil-fuel power plant and a travel plaza. Together these three projects will disrupt hundreds of acres of forest.

Late last year, at a Grow Smart Rhode Island transit conference, Raimondo spoke about the importance of developing around dense, transit-accessible hubs. A few months later, the governor enthusiastically supported the cash-strapped Rhode Island Department of Transportation spending $3 million to build new Route 295 exit ramps into the Johnston woods.

The Citizens Financial Group, in March, announced plans to build a corporate campus on open space in Johnston, off Greenville Avenue. Lawmakers promised a quick permitting process, even though the project conflicts with the state guide plan.

A Rhode Island State Guide Plan policy overview conducted last August reads, in part: “The central premise of this Plan is that our current rate of land consumption is a major departure from our historic pattern of dense urban centers, and is not sustainable in the long and short term. It reflects the growing realization of the urgency for Rhode Island to plan, develop, and conserve more sustainably as our very small State adjusts to the pace of the dynamic Northeast urbanized corridor and its strategic position between the regional hubs of New York City and Boston.”

The proposed 420,000-square-foot facility is expected to house employees currently working in leased office space in Cranston. The proposed campus, to be built within a 109-acre site in the Johnston forest, will feature a fitness center and walking paths. The company’s vice president of media relations recently told ecoRI News that the community will be able to enjoy the banking center’s nature trails.

Citizens Bank hasn’t filed an environmental impact study, but in a May 13 e-mail to ecoRI News, Lauren DiGeronimo wrote that “an environmental assessment is underway for the ramps and there is a habitat assessment underway for the campus.”

Shortly after the Citizens Bank project was made public, Grow Smart Rhode Island issued a statement. In it, Scott Wolf, the organization’s executive director, wrote that, “Although we question the wisdom of Citizens’ decision to relocate 3,200 employees to an isolated campus, bucking the national and regional trend of employers locating where young and talented workers most want to be — in vibrant urban centers — that certainly remains their business decision.”

The release also objected “to the decision by the Raimondo Administration to commit public resources to help facilitate the type of move that undermines Rhode Island’s progress in incentivizing the revitalization of its cities and town centers while protecting and preserving its remaining farmland and forestland.”

During a joint press conference with Rhode Island lawmakers to announce the Johnston project, Citizens Bank chairman Bruce Van Saun said building new was cheaper than renovating the bank’s Cranston office space.

At the conclusion of the presentation to announce the development of this new corporate banking campus, Raimondo told the TV cameras, “As I’ve said many times, first-class companies need first-class infrastructure.”

And the Ocean State's world-class farmland and forestland need better protection.

Campanini, of the Rhode Island Tree Council, said the Citizens Bank project would impair a “nice corridor of forest.” He said the average tree in Johnston generates $107 in benefits annually, such as helping manage stormwater runoff and cooling rivers, streams and buildings. He noted these benefits will increase as the town’s trees mature.

“People will say why bother to protect this scrawny piece of forest, but that’s the character of a juvenile forest after 75 years,” he said. “It takes a hundred years for trees to mature. If we keep cutting down juvenile forests, what will be left in the future?”

Without better conservation methods, better management practices and better leadership, Rhode Island could fairly easily be left with about 28 percent forested land cover, as the U.S. Forest Service projects. Rhode Island’s forests are largely privately owned, 72 percent; the state owns about 16 percent and local governments about 12 percent.

The state’s proposed travel center would be built on 20 acres of forest in Hopkinton. (RIDOT)

The state’s proposed travel center would be built on 20 acres of forest in Hopkinton. (RIDOT)

Into the woods
Some 16 miles to the northwest of Johnston, in the woods of Burrillville, a Chicago-based energy company has the support of the governor to build a new natural-gas power plant on a 62-acre site.

Among the project’s many opponents are two Burrillville lawmakers. Last month, Rep. Cale Keable and Sen. Paul Fogarty, in a letter to the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board, wrote, “While the proposed site may be the most economically advantageous location for the developer, the placement of this mega-facility ensures an immeasurable adverse impact on the quality of the state’s environment.”

The lawmakers also emphasized the health and ecological threats posed by the $700 million project, which they referred to as a “fracked gas power plant.” Campanini noted that virgin forestland would be leveled to make room for the power plant.

Forestland in the northern part of the state, however, isn’t the only open space being sacrificed for what could be argued is old-school development. A 20-acre wooded parcel in Hopkinton has been chosen for a new state Travel Plaza and Transit Center.

The 6,000-square-foot facility, at the southeast corner of the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 3, is expected to cost at least $12 million to build. The U.S. Department of Transportation has already approved a $9 million grant for the construction of the new center, which will offer food — most likely of the fast-highly-processed-non-local variety — restrooms, bicycle amenities and tourist information. State officials say a park-and-ride facility for up to 200 cars will serve bus passengers and commuters who carpool.

In 1991, Campanini and a handful of others founded the Rhode Island Tree Council. It’s mission, unchanged to this day, is “to create healthy urban and community forests, which underpin the state’s verdant ecological tapestry, to support its vibrant economy, and to enrich the lives of all Rhode Islanders.”

Twenty-five years later, despite numerous successes orchestrated by the council and other nonprofit organizations, Campanini recently told ecoRI News he was more optimistic in the early 1990s about the future of Rhode Island’s trees.

“Cities and towns have been slow to pass protective measures and policies to protect trees,” he said. “They’re overwhelmed financially, but we don’t need a lot of money to protect our forests. It’s about behavior and education.”

Campanini laid out a modest proposal he said would help Rhode Island better manage its natural resources. He said the state, at a cost of $2 million annually, should provide each of its 39 municipalities with $50,000, to hire a natural resources specialist or use the money to supplement ongoing environmental protection work. After five years, Rhode Island’s cities and towns would be on the hook for funding the position.

“There’s little direction at the municipal level to educate the public about the importance of canopy cover,” Campanini said. “People don’t realize how trees benefit their quality of life. We’re shattering our forestland into bits and pieces. The future isn’t bright for Rhode Island’s forests.”

Building a resilient local food system and mitigating the impacts of climate change requires farmland and forestland. The economic, societal and environmental benefits of each are diminished when they are constantly fragmented.

Food for thought
To feed 50 percent of the population by 2060 — Census figures project New England will have 15 million to 16 million people by then — “A New England Food Vision” has estimated that the region will need about 6 million acres of agricultural land, a threefold increase that would approach 1945 levels.

DEM, with the help of many partners, has protected 100 local farms in the past 20 years. Rhode Island is a right-to-grow-food state, meaning front yards can be made into vegetable gardens — some places in the United States actually prohibit this practice.

Bureaucrats, farmers, foodies, hipsters and hippies have spent the past decade talking about the need to elevate the role of food in Rhode Island. Many of these same people have backed their talk with action, by helping create food cooperatives, culinary business incubators and other industry infrastructure; spending their hard-earned money on locally sourced food; or being a relentless voice for local food in Statehouse halls and conference rooms.

All that local food work, however, requires support from the people sitting in the Statehouse’s leadership chairs. That support typically comes in dribs and drabs — increasingly fragmented like Rhode Island’s open spaces.

In fact, it takes a fistfight to protect the state's natural resources, and the mere promise of jobs to abuse them.