Tinfoil-Hat Rants, not Reason, Drive Rhode Island Planning

A sensible plan to help lead the Ocean State into an uncertain future dominated by a changing climate is ignored to keep U.N. officials from taking governmental control


It’s been six years since the RhodeMap RI effort first began, with a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Two years later, in 2013, the General Assembly passed a law requiring state officials to craft a plan to help guide Rhode Island’s future. They did just that, but the initiative has since been held hostage by unhinged claims and conspiracy theories.

In late 2014, Kevin Flynn, the then-associate director for the Rhode Island Division of Planning, said instead of addressing questions relating to the plan’s 100 or so recommendations, he had been beating back accusations that RhodeMap RI is an assault on personal rights and a coordinated effort with Agenda 21, a favorite conspiracy theory about the United Nations scheming to impose global mandates.

He said then that he had never seen a planning process generate such controversy.

During a December 2014 State Planning Council meeting, where the non-binding RhodeMap RI plan was approved unanimously, opponents of the initiative shouted “socialism,” one guy gave Nazi salutes, and another greeted the 26-member council in Russian.

The council members were called “cowards” and accused of treason, as they explained that the plan was based on sound research and public input and didn't authorize land seizures or set the stage for some kind of federal-government takeover.

The mothballed plan, overseen by the Division of Planning, outlines how Rhode Island, its demographics and its economy are changing. It encourages the Ocean State to take advantage of its many assets, such as some 400 miles of coastline, its fisheries, ports and marine industries, its location along the Northeast corridor, its collection of farms, its tourism industry and its respected universities.

The plan, based on research conducted by experienced professionals, also highlights Rhode Island’s many challenges, such as high unemployment, the high cost of doing business, high per capita health-care costs, gaps in private and public funding for business expansion, crumbling infrastructure, a lack of affordable housing, and gaps in child care and transportation.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which funded the two-year planning for RhodeMap RI, would be the primary funder for programs that would address housing needs, business development and environmental stewardship, including initiatives that would ensure inclusion for minorities and low-income groups.

When the plan was unveiled, then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee said RhodeMap RI took a broad look at economic development. He said it addressed issues such as public education, energy, climate change, public health, transportation and social equity.

But RhodeMap RI opponents, such as the Rhode Island Tea Party, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity and Citizens Against RhodeMap RI — now RI Rising — have been attacking the plan ever since, claiming the template for state planning and economic development would strip away municipal authority.

The Center for Freedom & Prosperity concluded that RhodeMap RI, with its “big government and anti-enterprise approach,” would negatively impact the free-market capitalist system that “has raised the standard of living of more people across the world than any other system ever devised by man.”

The plan’s opponents singled out HUD in their opposition, arguing, nonsensically, that the federal agency is propagating a top-down, big-government agenda. RI Rising called the initiative a “social-engineering plan in disguise.”

HUD already provides federal money to Rhode Island cities and towns annually to fund such things as road repair and new police vehicles. The state also received HUD funding to help repair the damage caused by extensive flooding in March 2010 and Superstorm Sandy two years later. Local governance remains.

Nevertheless, similar fear-mongering campaigns nationwide have succeeded in turning back HUD-funded planning efforts, by linking the programs to conspiracy theories, such as the international planning guideline adopted by the United Nations 25 years ago.

“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 ... bike paths,” according to a 2014 report by the civil-rights advocacy group the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The attacks have caught city councils, planning commissions and smart-growth advocates across the country off guard, leaving them scrambling to mount a defense.”

Rhode Island lawmakers never really tried to play defense. The plan’s biggest proponent, the unfairly maligned Flynn, retired, and state officials acquiesced to tinfoil conspiracies trotted out by those backed by special interests or by those afraid of brown and black people.

Opponents of RhodeMap RI have spent years scaring people into thinking that federal and state agencies would take control of municipal governance and property rights. Their theories are nothing more than fake news.

RhodeMap RI embraces such sinister ideas as increasing transportation options, protecting open space, increasing affordable and energy-efficient housing, expanding education and job opportunities, and better planning for future growth that emphasizes renewable energy. It’s not part of some devious plan that would allow the U.N. secretary-general to make zoning laws for the town of Foster.

Opponents, though, have continued to stoop to any level necessary. During a Statehouse hearing in May 2015, Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Center for Freedom & Prosperity, leveled a race-related remark as he questioned the motives behind the plan.

“Who are these people that seek to mandate skin color and income level mixes in our own neighborhood?” Stenhouse asked.

Other opponents, mostly older white guys and gals, have argued that government shouldn’t attempt to promote social equity or focus on improving urban areas. They point to a contentious affordable-housing debate in Westchester County, N.Y., to justify their conspiracies.

Stenhouse has called RhodeMap RI “a Trojan horse for an agenda out of Washington, D.C.” He has described the plan’s livability principals and growth centers as plans for “utopian villages” and “just fuzzy talk of green, walkable neighborhoods.” He has claimed the plan creates a “constitutional crisis” for the state by affording the Division of Planning unchecked authority over municipalities.

At a Center for Freedom & Prosperity rally before the plan was approved, Stenhouse promised to make conditions “politically toxic” for politicians who supported RhodeMap RI.

Shortly after the State Planning Council’s 2014 vote, Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, D-Coventry, said he planned to introduce legislation exempting his district from RhodeMap RI recommendations. His pandering was insulting on at least two fronts. One, the restaurant owner must think municipal officials in his district need a law to inform them that recommendations are only suggestions. Two, he inferred that not one of the 100-plus recommendations in the plan was worthy of consideration.

The hard work of those who spent hours upon hours creating a plan to help address Rhode Island’s changing landscape and better prepare the state for an uncertain future was essentially reduced to rubble by babble similar to all that ranting about Obama taking everyone’s guns away or the Affordable Care Act’s “death panels.”

General Assembly members embraced this prattle, declaring that RhodeMap RI posed a grave threat because of its connection to affordable-housing mandates and to eminent-domain laws — the same laws that will be enforced should a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico be built.

Rep. Justin Price, R-Exeter, sponsored a 2015 bill that allowed municipalities to reject RhodeMap RI suggestions. Rhode Island municipal officials already wielded that power, since, presumably, they all have brains. The self-employed contractor proudly noted that his legislation would keep “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.”

RhodeMap RI doesn’t mandate, suggest or even encourage the outsourcing of governance to federal authorities, but facts have become an inconvenience these days.

Many of RhodeMap RI’s recommendations are designed to be adopted locally — outside of the General Assembly, and without federal government or even U.N. approval — such as suggestions about coastal development, methods for formalizing workforce development, and technical assistance for working farms.

Some of the plan’s social-equity elements call for English language education, access to job training, and programs that foster ethnic and racial diversity in the workforce.

But far too many Rhode Island legislators showed little interest in the plan’s goals or its substance. Instead, they wasted time inventing a story about a U.N. bogeyman and his D.C. sidekick who will suddenly appear when “RhodeMap RI” is repeated three times in a row by a liberal, Communist, socialist, bicycle-riding tree hugger.

During an April 2015 House Committee on Oversight hearing, several lawmakers berated Flynn about RhodeMap RI’s wickedness. They expressed deep concern about a scenario that is as improbable as a Godzilla attack on the Statehouse: HUD forcibly requiring municipalities and/or property owners to forfeit their rights.

Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, said he was concerned about “dictates from Washington, D.C.” “That’s what is at the heart of this,” he said.

No, at the heart of this is fear-mongering and lies, and a collective unwillingness to acknowledge needed change and plan accordingly for the future.

Rep. Karen MacBeth, a Democrat-turned-Republican from 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.”

That perception only exists because people like Stenhouse, MacBeth, Newberry, Price and Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, worked so hard stoking baseless fears.

Thanks to all their howling at the moon, which easily distracted Statehouse leadership, such as House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, state officials now avoid any mention of RhodeMap RI. ecoRI News contacted both the governor’s office and the Division of Planning to discuss the status of RhodeMap RI. The Division of Planning ignored two e-mails. The governor’s office passed our request along to the Department of Administration.

Rhode Island’s collection of elected lawyers, restaurant owners, builders, bakers and candlestick makers continue to ignore years of professional planning work because of a manufactured dystopian story about U.N. blue hats storming the Statehouse and city/town halls throughout Rhode Island to force residents to ride bicycles, grow vegetables and wear Birkenstocks.

After RhodeMap RI was approved, Mattiello released a statement that said, in part, that, “With the amount of controversy involved and opposition expressed, I am disappointed that RhodeMap RI was approved. If this plan intends to set the direction for our state, it really needs the support of Rhode Islanders. ... RhodeMap RI has diverted attention away from the goal of improving our state’s economy. ... I prefer to focus my attention on making sure that Rhode Island develops a stronger, better and more vibrant economy that creates new jobs. This plan goes far beyond the scope of economic development strategy.”

His entire statement, most notably the last sentence, is frighteningly naive. The House speaker seems to believe social and economic justice, planning for the future, acknowledging a changing population and landscape, environmental protections, access to affordable health care, fixing and maintaining infrastructure, providing more transportation choices, building more affordable housing and responsible land-use planning for the second-most densely populated state don’t have anything to do with economic development.

Rhode Island’s success hinges on more than eliminating the car tax and creating short-term construction jobs. But Mattiello, like Gov. Gina Raimondo and other Rhode Island “leaders,” recently dismissed RhodeMap RI recommendations to build a 420,000-square-foot corporate office park outside of a developed urban area. They support the clear-cutting of forest to build a 900-megawatt fossil-fuel power plant.

They continue to embrace an economic development plan that focuses on stealing business from neighboring states with corporate tax incentives that end up placing a heavier tax burden on Rhode Island's residents. They measure Rhode Island’s success by how they help CEOs and shareholders become richer.

RhodeMap RI, with its warts and all, created a pragmatic path the Ocean State could follow into a future that will undoubtedly present increased stresses on natural resources. Instead, we seem determined to bulldoze our way hopelessly through the woods.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.