By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — If you strip away the heated rhetoric and fear-mongering, the opposition to RhodeMap RI boils down to one or two issues.
Mike Puyana, president of the Rhode Island Tea Party, explained that there’s deep concern, particularly among opponents living in rural areas, that the proposed template for state planning and economic development will strip away municipal authority in those communities.
“It comes down to the matter of maintaining local control, and when it comes to RhodeMap RI, you lose every element of that,” Puyana said.
In 2013, opponents — mostly rural municipalities and environmentalists — of the "slopes" bill made essentially the same argument. The General Assembly passed and Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the development-friendly bill into law.
Mike Stenhouse, chief executive officer of the conservative, free-market advocacy group Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said RhodeMap RI is another affordable-housing mandate that no amount of community action will be able to oppose.
Both single out the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as propagating a top-down, big-government agenda. The federal agency that funded the two-year planning for RhodeMap RI also will be the primary funder for programs that address housing, business development and environmental stewardship. Layer on that, recommendations that ensure inclusion for minorities and low-income groups and RhodeMap RI creates significant antagonism, and heightened criticism, among conservative organizations.
“In my view, HUD is trying to rewrite the American dream out of a central location in Washington, D.C.," Stenhouse said.
Planning tool. The call for a new state plan was created by legislation in 2013. The law seeks a new guide for the next session of the General Assembly and the new gubernatorial term.
Many of its recommendations can be adopted outside the General Assembly, such as creating a task force for defense and shipping industries, guidance for waterfront development, methods for formalizing workforce development, and technical assistance for working farms and forests. There are suggestions for creating a Rhode Island center for design and manufacturing, expanding programs with National Grid, and tax-free business development zones.
RhodeMap RI takes a broader look at economic development than past plans, Chafee wrote in a letter of introduction in the most recent draft. It addresses bigger issues, he wrote. “Among them are public education, energy, climate change, public health, transportation, performance measurement, social equity, and diverse population."
Many of these goals are taken from other recently updated state planning reports that focus on land use, transportation and water. A major element of land development looks to “sustain the urban-rural distinction” with village centers in rural areas that adopt moderate growth while farmland and open space is protected. Urban growth centers are identified to allow targeted development in cities.
Some of the social-equity elements call for English language education, access to job training, and programs that foster ethnic and racial diversity in the workforce.
Agenda 21. Kevin Flynn, associate director of the state Division of Planning, the organization overseeing the RhodeMap RI process, said instead of addressing questions relating to the plan's nearly 100 recommendations, he has been beating back accusations that the new state economic plan is an assault on personal rights and a direct consequence of Agenda 21, the popular conservative theory that the United Nations is conspiring to impose global mandates that address overpopulation and sustainability.
“There’s nothing in the plan that takes away local government control and local zoning control,” Flynn said. “That’s imbedded in the (state) Constitution and the statute.”
HUD sends funds to six Rhode Island communities each year, and most of the state's other 33 municipalities apply for community development grants to help fund roads, police cars and infrastructure. The state also continues to receive HUD funds for the damage caused by March 2010 flooding and Superstorm Sandy.
Flynn noted that public and business representatives have been involved at all points in the creation of RhodeMap RI. Five members of Commerce RI, the state economic development agency, have worked on the project for a year.
“We’ve been successful at putting private sector input in a public plan,” said Marcel Valois, director of Commerce RI.
RhodeMap RI also was backed by the business advocacy group the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC). RIPEC, however, has joined the chorus of critics who lobbied Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello to convince Chafee to delay the scheduled Nov. 20 vote on RhodeMap RI. A vote before the 35-member State Planning Council is now tentatively scheduled for Dec. 11.