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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

There are lots of better places for projects than forests

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

This vacant plaza on Route 3 in Coventry, which was once home to Almacs and Kmart, has been empty for about two decades. During the past few years, when forestland in residential neighborhoods was being clear-cut to make room for utility-scale renewable-energy projects, this vacant commercial space was ignored. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
This vacant plaza on Route 3 in Coventry, which was once home to Almacs and Kmart, has been empty for about two decades. During the past few years, when forestland in residential neighborhoods was being clear-cut to make room for utility-scale renewable-energy projects, this vacant commercial space was ignored. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Rhode Island’s land-use policies, as written in such documents as Land Use 2025, highlight the importance of smart development. The state even has an organization dedicated to helping it grow smart.

Rhode Island in general, though, has been slow to embrace the concept, even as relentless development exacerbates local global-warming impacts. Cranes in the sky and pile drivers on green space create jobs and win votes, but they can also create long-term problems, especially when what we build and where is so easily manipulated by special interests.

Political gain and short-term growth aren’t preparing the Ocean State for what will be a challenging future shaped by a warming world.

During the past three years, for instance, chunks of Rhode Island green space have been cleared, covered, and crushed to build renewable energy. But solving one problem by creating another isn’t good policy. In fact, it ignores decades of Rhode Island’s land-use policy.

When green space is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon. This degradation exacerbates global warming, while the climate crisis in turn exacerbates further deterioration. It’s a vicious cycle.

Rhode Island has ample rooftops, parking lots, landfills, brownfields, gravel pits, and vacant and underused developed space that solar panels could have covered before the state began diminishing its inventory of green space.


These natural resources Rhode Island has sacrificed to make room for more concrete, asphalt, glass, plastic, steel, iron, and dead wood are some of the most important tools the state has in mitigating the impacts of a manmade climate emergency.

It takes a forest 75 to 100 years to mature. Land covered for two to three decades by utility-scale ground-mounted solar arrays won’t magically spring to life if and when the panels are removed.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) touts smart-growth development, noting that reusing existing infrastructure and buildings takes advantage of previous investments and the energy used to build them.

The preservation of green space and its carbon-sequestering abilities is key to mitigating the impacts of the worsening climate crisis, according to the federal agency. 

On its Smart Growth and Climate Change webpage, the EPA promotes development in previously developed areas. It supports preserving large, contiguous areas of green space to better protect ecosystems that might be under pressure from a warming climate.

Rhode Island’s renewable-energy policy, however, works against its own land-use principles, according to Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Providence-based Grow Smart Rhode Island.

“It’s the unintended consequences of the state’s renewable-energy statutes,” Millar said. “They’re doing a good job of encouraging renewable-energy development but they didn’t factor in where that development is being incentivized to go.”

He said “key legislative leaders” don’t believe there is a problem, or it’s too confusing to address because of competing opinions.

However, if Rhode Island’s elected officials paid attention to the many reports and studies that address land-use management — some of which were commissioned by those currently in office — they would find taxpayer-funded guidance, devoid of special interests.

The purpose of the Land Use 2025 plan “is to guide future land use and development and to present State Guide Plan policies under which State and local land development activities will be reviewed for consistency.”

Released in 2006, Land Use 2025 challenged “Rhode Islanders to work collectively to design, build, and conserve the State’s communities and landscapes.”

Thirteen years later, however, it remains a challenge to develop Rhode Island in a manner that best addresses the climate crisis and other 21st-century concerns. The central premise of the state’s third land-use plan is “that our current rate of land consumption is a major departure from our historic pattern of dense urban centers, and is not sustainable in the long and short term.”

“We need to provide disincentives for the continuing clear-cut of Rhode Island’s forests,” Millar said. “That’s simply counterproductive in achieving our greenhouse emission goals. On the same token, we need to provide better incentives to encourage development on developed and disturbed locations. The latter really has the least amount of conflicts with the public.”

He noted that Rhode Island’s latest land-use plan “does an excellent job of laying out a very good vision for how the state should grow.”

“It’s clearly advocating compact, mixed-use growth in our existing urban areas and for new growth in rural and suburban towns, more village-style and hamlet development that would concentrate growth and avoid the further loss of our farms and forests,” Millar said. “I don’t think anyone can really argue with that vision.”

Land Use 2025 was written to reflect “the growing realization of the urgency for Rhode Island to plan, develop, and conserve more intelligently.”

But adopting an intelligent approach to land use has come up short in a few areas, most notably the development of renewable energy. 

To expand the state’s collection of renewable-energy megawatts, Rhode Island inadvertently created a system that made it more profitable for developers to degrade green space than reuse already-developed, infrastructure-ready, paved-over disturbed space.
Fixing the problem of solar sprawl has been a slow Statehouse grind.

Three years ago some 60 acres of woodland in Johnston were leveled to build a 420,000-square-foot corporate banking campus with 2,408 parking spots. (ecoRI News)
Three years ago some 60 acres of woodland in Johnston were leveled to build a 420,000-square-foot corporate banking campus with 2,408 parking spots. (ecoRI News)

Development that doesn’t adhere to the state’s land-use guidelines and is the opposite of smart growth can be found across Rhode Island, as developers have hacked their way through green space to build monuments to corporate banking, blackjack, and suburbia.

Take Aquidneck Island, for example, which has seen its population remain flat for 
the past four decades. In spite of that, some 6,200 new housing units have been built since 1980. Most of this new housing stock has arrived in the form of 
suburban sprawl and second homes that have replaced green space, including farmland.

If this development trend continues, it will result in additional pressure on the 
island’s already-stressed drinking water sources, more beach closures, increased traffic, more greenhouse-gas emissions, and greater climate vulnerability.

Instead of clear-cutting forests, filling in wetlands, and drowning salt marshes to 
make room for more impervious surfaces and expanding interstates 95 and 195 
to make room for more cars, Rhode Island should be focused on supporting development that leaves more green space intact and encourages people out of cars.

That kind of development — the kind outlined in Land Use 2025 and other state documents — would help mitigate the impacts of global warming, as 
trees sequester carbon, wetlands help control flooding, salt marshes protect 
exiting infrastructure from storm surge, and walking, bicycling, and using public transit lower greenhouse-gas emissions.

A report released last month by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explains how better land management and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions are essential to mitigating the climate crisis.

“Land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase,” according to the report. 


“This means there are limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and afforestation. It also takes time for trees and soils to store carbon effectively. Bioenergy needs to be carefully managed to avoid risks to food security, biodiversity and land degradation. Desirable outcomes will depend on locally appropriate policies and governance systems.”

Panmao Zhai, co-chair of an IPCC working group, wrote that, “There is real potential here through more sustainable land use, reducing over-consumption and waste of food, eliminating the clearing and burning of forests, preventing over-harvesting of fuelwood, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thus helping to address land related climate change issues.”

By ignoring decades-old land-use guidelines and changing the rules to benefit those with power, money, and/or influence, the Ocean State is making itself even more vulnerable to a mounting climate emergency.