By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The new statewide economic development plan moved a step closer to adoption as a review committee recently approved the RhodeMap RI effort, and shot back at critics.
“This is absolute nonsense,” said Robert Azar, chairman of the RhodeMap RI Technical Review Committee during its Nov. 13 meeting. Azar was referring to negative letters and the groundswell of detractors at recent public meetings who suggested that adopting the new economic plan would cede control of the state to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Others have suggested the plan is an extension of the United Nation’s Agenda 21 conspiracy.
A $1.9 million HUD grant funded much of the three-year effort to replace the state plan.
“There are people that believe that what HUD does is come in and take over your government at all levels,” said Kevin Flynn, associate director of the state Division of Planning, the organization overseeing the RhodeMap RI process. He noted that every Rhode Island city and town already accepts money from HUD annually. All remain autonomous, he said.
About half of the 150 attendees at public hearings Oct. 27 and Oct. 28 spoke against the plan. Several opponents took offense at the plan’s “smart-growth” principals that focus on multi-use, village centers and enhanced preservation of open space. There were accusations of government land taking to achieve these objectives.
“(RhodeMap RI) does not change anyone’s property rights, or change eminent domain,” said Jeff Davis, a planner with the Statewide Planning Program.
Others have protested that the government shouldn’t attempt to promote social equity or focus on improving urban areas.
At a Nov. 12 meeting, the influential business group the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) called for a delay on the plan's final vote until January, when Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo takes office. Several members of the review committee noted that the plan was designed to be in place before the new administration is in place.
“RIPEC’s position doesn’t hold a lot of water, and their timing seems political,” said Ames Colt, a member of the technical committee and head of the Department of Environmental Management’s Bay, Rivers and Watershed Coordination Team.
Flynn added that RIPEC called for the new economic plan and has been involved in the planning and community outreach since the project launched in February 2012. “(RIPEC) has been at the table throughout the process,” he said.
Flynn said Raimondo is aware of the plan’s content and expressed support for the initiative during her campaign. He and other members of the committee stress that plan is nonbinding and that the General Assembly will choose which parts to enact.
“This is not legislation or law," committee member Patrick Malone said. "We are not regulating anything."
The process involved numerous public workshops to share ideas and build community consensus on issues such as education, the environment, energy, housing and tourism. The plan and the process for focused economic developing were modeled on a similar effort done in Massachusetts.
“That’s how Massachusetts has done it. They have a much more successful economy than we do, “Flynn said, “and that’s what we are going to do.”
As for paying for those parts of the plan that are implemented, “That’s the role of the budget office, Legislature and the governor,” Flynn said.