By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Conservative members of the General Assembly continue to hammer away at RhodeMap RI, the contentious new statewide planning guide.
During an April 9 grilling of Kevin Flynn, the associate director for planning with the state Division of Planning and the manager of the RhodeMap RI initiative, several members of the House Committee on Oversight had little interest in the goals and the substance of the plan, which offers guidelines to cities and towns for economic development, transportation, infrastructure, housing and energy.
They instead were deeply concerned that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) could forcibly require municipalities and/or property owners to forfeit their property rights if they adopt RhodeMap RI objectives.
Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, said he is concerned about “dictates from Washington, D.C.” “That’s what is at the heart of this,” he said.
Rep. Karen MacBeth, D-Cumberland, said public perception is that “somebody on the federal level is going to be able to come in and dictate what they do with their property, or who they sell their property.”
Similar fears about HUD were echoed by Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, who noted that the recent two-hour meeting accomplished little. He criticized Flynn for signing a contract with HUD to accept the $1.9 million that established RhodeMap RI.
“That’s the angst sir,” Chippendale said. “You asked where the angst is coming from. That’s precisely where it’s coming from.”
That same day senators who oppose the new state guide plan introduced three bills (S818, S819 and S820) that would nearly nullify RhodeMap RI, shift approval from the governor to the General Assembly and allow cities and towns to opt out of the state affordable-housing and land-use provisions. House members introduced similar bills (H6041, H6024 and H6043) on April 3.
Flynn repeatedly said municipalities are not required to adopt RhodeMap RI and are not penalized if they ignore elements of the state planning guide.
“They don’t mandate that anyone do anything frankly in terms of implementing them,” he said.
Flynn said the process that created RhodeMap RI was established by the General Assembly, and he noted that having a plan allows cities and towns to apply for federal planning and development grants.
Newberry said he didn’t agree that HUD couldn’t take action against municipalities that don’t follow the terms of Sustainable Community Regional Planning grants.
“It’s a question of who sets the rules. That’s what this is about,” he said.
Flynn said 32 Rhode Island cities and towns receive HUD grants annually under a program that has been ongoing for 40 years. The state also received $30 million from HUD for disaster relief following the floods of March 2010, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and winter storm Nemo in 2013.
HUD, he said, hasn’t taken action against municipalities over how the funds were spent.
The federal agency has been vilified by opponents of RhodeMap RI for withholding funds from Westchester County, N.Y., for not complying with low-income housing objectives. The ongoing court fight has served as a rallying cry for conservatives and libertarians who claim the litigation is part of a larger federal effort to impose social engineering on the local level.
Skeptics of RhodeMap RI have targeted the social equity portion of the plan as an invitation for HUD to influence local housing and property rights.
“You shouldn’t have signed that (grant) document if you didn’t know what HUD was going to do,” Chippendale told Flynn, garnering applause from the audience.
Flynn responded by saying that the state’s shifting population toward a larger minority workforce makes it important to address the current economic disparity by growing the middle class through education and job training.
“If that’s a radical social idea then we are guilty, but that’s what the state faces,” Flynn said.
At the outset of the recent hearing, Michael DiBiase, director of the Department of Administration, the agency that oversees the Division of Planning, defended RhodeMap RI, saying the state needs a long-term plan to address its shortcomings.
“We don’t have a lot of natural resources, we don’t have a lot of land. We have a lot of challenges,” DiBiase said.
Last December, the State Planning Council approved the economic development portion of RhodeMap RI, called Rhode Island Rising. Two other plans for housing are currently being developed through Statewide Planning.
The RhodeMap RI economic development plan was vetted through 14 public forums and hearings and 25 presentations to individual groups. Flynn described the process as the most extensive public outreach ever by his office. The public hearing process was criticized for inadequate advertising and subsequent low turnout at some events.
The plan received input and backing from a long list of local groups, including the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation and the Rhode Island Foundation. Several cities and towns have already adopted portions of the plan as they update their comprehensive plans.