Aquidneck Island Could Run Out of Unprotected Space by 2050

Despite flat population growth on Aquidneck Island since 1980, the three communities have added more than 6,000 housing units in that time. (ALT)

Despite flat population growth on Aquidneck Island since 1980, the three communities have added more than 6,000 housing units in that time. (ALT)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — If current development trends persist, 100 percent of the unprotected farmland, woods, and other open space on Aquidneck Island will be developed by 2050, according to an analysis commissioned by the Aquidneck Land Trust.

The population of the island’s three communities — Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport — has hovered around 60,000 since 1980 but the largest island in Narragansett Bay has added about 6,200 new housing units during the past 39 years — an average of nearly 160 annually.

Most of this new housing stock has arrived in the form of suburban sprawl. If this development trend continues, it will result in additional pressure to the island’s drinking-water system, more beach closures, increased traffic, loss of scenic views, more greenhouse-gas emissions, and farms replaced by subdivisions, according to the consultants who spoke at an Aug. 14 Aquidneck Land Trust (ALT) event at the Wyndham Newport Hotel on Aquidneck Avenue.

Three staffers from Watertown, Mass.-based Sasaki Associates — Jill Dixon, Chris Horne, and Luke Mich — shared details of a build-out analysis of Aquidneck Island. Based on the current development trend, they presented two possible scenarios, based on modeling, for the island: 1) What will be the impact if current development and sprawl trends continue? 2) What will be the impact if a conservation and smart growth-focused approach is taken?

The first scenario followed the island’s current path of development, which is single-family homes being built in the suburbs. The second scenario focused on mixed-use development, higher housing densities, and town centers.

Attendees heard a presentation on the analysis, which was followed by a breakout session and then a question-and-answer period. A final report of the analysis is expected to be released this fall. ALT executive director Charles Allott said the findings will be shared with the island’s three municipalities.

Work on the analysis began a year ago. The project is tasked with finding out how quickly landscape changes are occurring on Aquidneck Island. Horne said the nearly 38-square-mile island “is developing rapidly.” He noted that by 2050, about a generation from now, nearly 5,000 new housing units could be built and an additional 8,000 vehicles could be driving on local roads.

Under the status quo scenario regarding all areas available for development on the island, he said 3,000 more acres — about the size of the southern half of Newport — would be developed during the next three decades. He noted that if the island took a conservation/smart-growth approach to development, that number could be reduced to 900 acres.

Aquidneck Island has 6,940 acres of prime farmland, 52 percent of which is currently unprotected, according to Mich.

The first scenario, by increasing the amount of impervious surface on what is now farmland and other open space, would put additional pressure on the island’s five watersheds, seven reservoirs, and popular beaches, he said.

The island’s reservoirs and principal streams are categorized has impaired by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Earlier this month, 10 out of the 12 island beaches sampled by Middletown-based Clean Ocean Access tested above, in some cases well above, the acceptable limit for enterococci, bacteria found in human and animal waste. The Rhode Island standard for enterococci is a maximum of 60 colony-forming units (cfu) per 100 milliliters in both fresh and saltwater beaches. Anything above that is considered unsafe for recreational use. The beach off Marine Avenue in Newport tested at 24,200 cfu.

Dixon said the island’s three communities need to work together to better manage development.

Testing conducted on water samples collected Aug. 8 at 12 Aquidneck Island beaches showed 10 tested above the acceptable limit for enterococci, bacteria found in human and animal waste. (Clean Ocean Access)

Testing conducted on water samples collected Aug. 8 at 12 Aquidneck Island beaches showed 10 tested above the acceptable limit for enterococci, bacteria found in human and animal waste. (Clean Ocean Access)

Comments, questions, concerns
During the breakout session, this ecoRI News reporter sat at a table with seven other people, who shared concerns about island development, had questions and comments regarding the two highlighted scenarios, and discussed possible ways to reduce the impacts of development. Here are some notes on their comments:

Development concerns: the buildup of second homes; impacts on water resources; increased traffic; impacts on ecosystem services such as water filtration and erosion control; more lawns and lawn chemicals; people moved here for the open space; it will even be more dangerous to walk and bike; how can we build more when our drinking water and beaches are already stressed?; “If we build out every parcel of land on the island, we’re not going to have any drinking water”; “If we build to the point of unsustainable, what is the future?”

Scenario thoughts: What type of businesses would be included in the mixed-use developments?; no sewer in Portsmouth makes higher density development tricky; are there other possible scenarios?

The remedies: retreat from the coastline; “undeveloping” little used and vacant parcels; change zoning ordinances; moratorium on development; conservation easements; plant trees; better public transit.

The following are some of the comments and thoughts shared during the question-and-answer session: most of the mixed-use development would be in Middletown and Newport; significant infrastructure are assumed during the next 30 years; Aquidneck Island has a “unique landscape heritage”; seeing a beautiful landscape has value; the two scenarios aren’t meant to be a comprehensive view of the island’s future; climate-change impacts will be worsened as the island is further developed, especially if that development is put in the path of sea-level rise and storm surge.

In 2017, Sasaki Associates produced the Newport Tree, Park, and Open Space Master Plan.