By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The heated debate surrounding RhodeMap RI’s economic plan recently veered toward the issue of race during its latest legislative showdown.
Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the conservative advocacy group Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, leveled the first race-related remark as he questioned the federal motives behind this new state economic development plan.
“Who are these people that seek to mandate skin color and income level mixes in our own neighborhood?” Stenhouse asked during a May 21 hearing for four bills (H6041, H6042, H6043 and H5713) that are aimed at allowing municipalities to opt out of portions of the affordable housing and land-management portions of RhodeMap RI.
Rep. Kenneth Marshall, D-Bristol, fired back, challenging Stenhouse’s claim that this new state guide plan mandates affordable-housing rules and cedes municipal power to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“I took a little offense to some of the words you came out with about the state and HUD mandating the color of one’s skin being put in your neighborhood. And I have to tell you I take offense to that,” Marshall said. “Personally, as an elected official, I don’t see the color in anybody’s skin because we all have the right to live within a community whether they have the ability to afford it or not. And that’s what made this country great.”
Several opponents of RhodeMap RI promptly sought to clarify that their objections aren’t fueled by racism.
“I don’t see color,” Coventry Town Council President Glenford Shibley said. “I trained policemen for 29 years — all different nationalities, all different colors. So, I just wanted to get that in for the record.”
But Joe Buchanan, a member of the RhodeMap RI Social Equity Advisory Committee, said racism is inherent in the opposition to RhodeMap RI. He criticized opponents for not participating in the public workshops but instead trying to dismantle the project after the work was finished.
“They are coming in at the last minute and try to dictate and bully and say these racist statements that they don’t want to see poor black people, poor white people come to their communities,” Buchanan said.
Steve Fischbach, an attorney who also serves on the Social Equity Advisory Committee, said opponents of RhodeMap RI have an “ugly agenda.”
“There is no reason why they would have singled out affordable housing and to attack social equity if they weren’t racist,” he said, “and that’s what they are and they need to be called out for that.”
After the hearing, Stenhouse stated that he is critical of HUD's racial tones in its policies but he does not agree that there is an implied racism with opposing the housing elements of RhodeMap RI.
"To be clear, our center is critical of HUD's policies to impose a form of racial and income quotas on Rhode Island cities and towns," he said. "We believe that, in America, people should be free to live in whatever community they desire, regardless of their cultural or economic background."
RhodeMap critics have targeted the HUD program that has issued grants to local planning authorities in 2010 and 2011 for sustainable planning. In all, HUD has awarded more than $165 million to 74 grantees in 44 states.
The local plans are expected to include HUD's six principles of livability that focus on increasing transportation options; increasing affordable and energy-efficient housing; expanding education and job opportunities; improving rural, urban and suburban village centers; and better planning for future growth that emphasizes local, renewable energy.
Rhode Island was one of the first in the country to receive a HUD sustainability grant and is using the $1.9 million to update the state guide plan: the plan used by cities and towns as they make periodic updates to their comprehensive plans. It’s called RhodeMap RI.
The state Division of Planning held more than a dozen public workshops on its economic development plan called Rhode Island Rising. Last December, the 29-member State Planning Council approved the plan.
Since late last year, opponents, led by an aggressive campaign organized by the R.I. Center for Freedom & Prosperity, have fought the plan, scaring people into thinking that federal and state agencies will take control of municipal governance and property rights.
Similar campaigns nationwide have succeeded in turning back HUD-funded planning efforts by linking the program to broader conspiracy theories, such as the international planning guideline adopted by the United Nations in 1992, known as Agenda 21.
“In recent years, Agenda 21 has become an effective rallying cry, organizing tool and bludgeon that right-wing groups have been using to beat back local sustainable growth and anti-sprawl initiatives, including everything from bike paths to smart meters on home appliances,” wrote the civil-rights advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center in a 2014 report. “The attacks have caught city councils, planning commissions and smart-growth advocates across the country off guard, leaving them scrambling to mount a defense.”
Stenhouse claims there is a connection between Agenda 21 and RhodeMap RI, but he believes that local opposition to the new state economic plan is caused by its inclusion of issues that are unrelated to the economy, such as affordable-housing quotas defined by race and income.
Such objectives should be established by the General Assembly, rather than state and federal bureaucrats, Stenhouse said.
HUD spokesman George Gonzalez told ecoRI News that there is no link between Agenda 21 and the department’s sustainability grants program. Funds were awarded, he said, “based on a local vision and based on local participation.”
Stenhouse, though, called RhodeMap RI “a Trojan horse for an agenda out of Washington, D.C.” He described the livability principals and growth centers as plans for “utopian villages” and “just fuzzy talk of green, walkable neighborhoods.” He said RhodeMap RI creates a “constitutional crisis” for the state by affording the Division of Planning unchecked authority over municipalities.
Kevin Flynn, head of the state’s Division of Planning, said his office has no such power. “There’s absolutely nothing mandated in the economic development plan that forces a community to do anything that relates to growth centers,” he said. "It’s clearly up to them.”
Affordable housing, Flynn said, is a just a piece of an economic development plan that seeks to build an economy that offers access to transportation and suitable places for underserved populations to live and work.
“It is at the heart of an economic development plan,” Flynn said. “It is not a housing plan. ... Does it reference housing? Absolutely it does. Those issues are not separable.”
Municipal planners from across the state testified in support of Rhode Island Rising, saying it’s based on years of research and experience. Some rebuked the naysayers for spreading unfounded fear.
Ashley Hahn, a town planner in Rhode Island for more than a decade, said the Division of Planning has no authority to mandate housing and land-use decisions.
“They can’t tell you what your zoning is,” she said. “It’s not legally possible. So this idea that this document somehow usurps local control and forces a community to zone itself in ways that it doesn’t want to is just absurd. ... It’s a crazy notion.”
Nevertheless, opponents, including several members of the General Assembly, declared that RhodeMap RI poses a grave threat because of its connection to affordable housing and eminent domain laws.
“The bottom line is (the legislation) keeps the power in the state, doesn’t let the federal government decide what we are going to do as far as our statewide planning and housing,” said Rep. Justin Price, R-Exeter, a sponsor of the one of the bills that allows municipalities reject Rhode Island Rising.
The bills were held for further study. A hearing for Senate companion bills is expected in the coming weeks.