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Monday, January 27, 2020

Charlestown conspicuous by its absence

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Image result for charlestown ri shopping bags
Charlestown's answer to climate change and plastic trash - tote bags.
Though not a bad thing, selling tote bags is a very weak response by
a town so vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. (photo -
Charlestown Land Trust)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Congrats to ecoRI for surveying all RI municipalities. Charlestown and several other municipalities did NOT respond. The lack of response speaks volumes.  

In the interest of space, I have deleted those towns from the compendium of RI cities and towns below, only including those municipalities who actually reported on their plans and training. You can read them all, including the non-respondents, in Frank's original article.
- Will Collette

During a week-long bonus session of the General Assembly in September 2017, both the House and Senate approved bills that require Rhode Island municipal planning board members to undergo training related to the impacts of sea-level rise and building in floodplains.

The training is a free two-hour course required once every two years for both coastal and inland municipalities. Every municipal official mandated to participate was required to undergo the training by Sept. 30, 2019 and file a statement asserting that the training was completed. To meet this requirement, planning board/commission members can watch educational modules online.

The legislation, signed by the governor on Oct. 5, 2017, was one of the recommendations made in a 2016 report by a special legislative commission that studied the economic risks of flooding and sea-level rise. The 11-member commission “focused on risk assessment to identify vulnerabilities that would make business assets more susceptible to damage” from flooding and rising seas.

The commission found that many policymakers in municipal and state government are unaware of the threat of sea-level rise — Rhode Island has 21 coastal municipalities — and increased flooding.

Since 1930, sea-level rise in Rhode Island has increased an average of an inch per decade, according to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). However, the rate of sea-level rise has quickened and sea level along the Ocean State’s coast has risen 6 inches during the past four decades. Accelerated sea-level rise is projected to continue, according to CRMC.

Despite this saltwater encroachment, a recent analysis found that Rhode Island is developing coastal risk zones twice as fast as safer areas. Statewide, about $4.5 billion worth of property lies on land less than 5 feet above the high-tide line.

A changing climate has altered the jet stream, causing more frequent and intense multi-day rain storms, according to David Vallee, the hydrologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service at the Northeast River Forecast Center in Norton, Mass.

Since 1930, single-day flooding events in Rhode Island have doubled from seven to 15 annually. In 2018, there were 22. Since 1905, annual precipitation has increased some 12 inches, much of it since 1970.

Rhode Island’s average annual temperature, along with the number of days that are 90 degrees or hotter, continues to increase.

The Island Park neighborhood in Portsmouth is among the most vulnerable areas in Rhode Island to storm surge and sea-level rise. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

“The impacts of climate change, from rising sea levels to more extreme rainfall events, are already being felt in Rhode Island,” according to a 2016 report by the state’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council. “It is widely accepted that action is needed now, not just in the future.”

Climate change is both a present threat and an ongoing hazard that is expected to have a significant impact on municipalities, according to Rhode Island’s hazard mitigation plan. The plan also noted that the climate crisis acts as an amplifier for existing natural hazards.

ecoRI News emailed all 39 Rhode Island municipalities — in most cases contacting the head planner, but also reaching out to the town administrators in Little Compton and Tiverton and the town clerk in Scituate — to see if their planning board members had undergone the required training. ecoRI News also asked these municipal officials to provide some information about one or two things their city or town is doing or has done to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis.

The officials had a week to respond to the email. Seventeen municipal officials from the 39 cities and towns ecoRI News contacted responded.

ecoRI News also sent emails to three Department of Administration (DOA) employees, including a supervising planner whose contact information appears on a planning guidance memo announcing the new law, to ask if the state keeps track of who has and hasn’t taken the required climate training.

Our initial email, sent to the supervising planner for DOA’s Division of Statewide Planning, received a Jan. 10 response — “Thank you for your interest in the Division of Statewide Planning. I am currently looking into your questions and someone from the Division will contact you with more information.” Two other DOA employees, the director of public affairs and the Division of Statewide Planning’s associate director for planning, were cc’d on the response. No DOA employee contacted us.

A follow-up email sent Jan. 15 to all three DOA employees received no response.

The following is a glimpse at what Rhode Island’s cities and towns are doing to address the challenges presented by the climate crisis and whether members of their planning boards have undergone the mandated training:

This photo of a flooded Barrington home on King Philip Avenue was taken during a king tide on Sept. 30, 2015. (ecoRI News)

BARRINGTON (coastal)
Local concern: The town is among the communities most at risk of flood damage from a hurricane. Two roads (Wampanoag Trail and County Road) are among the most vulnerable in the state to sea-level rise.

Actions: Philip Hervey, director of planning, building & resiliency, said to comply with Rhode Island’s comprehensive plan requirements the town has incorporated goals and actions to plan for mitigating anticipated climate-change impacts into its comprehensive plan. He noted that in 2017 the town completed its update to its hazard mitigation plan, evaluating climate-change impacts, especially sea-level rise, and including resiliency goals and actions.

“As an aside, since both plans were adopted sea level rise projections have worsened considerably,” he wrote in his response.

In 2017-19, the towns of Barrington and Warren worked with URI’s Coastal Institute and Coastal Resources Center on a mixed-use demonstration site project. Last year, the town again teamed up with Warren for a Municipal Resilience Program funded by the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. 

Projects include: shoreline restoration and resiliency adaptation at Walker Farm, which includes the planting of a buffer along the water; and work within the rights of way off Bowden and Opechee avenues to better capture stormwater and to remove invasives.

Hervey noted that the town hired a consulting resiliency planner last September, added funding to the capital improvement program for “climate mitigation projects,” and expanded the scope of the Energy Committee to include resiliency planning — now called the Resiliency & Energy Committee.

Training: Hervey said he didn’t know if the town’s seven Planning Board members had taken the required course.

BRISTOL (coastal) -  No response.

Local concern: Increased flooding.

Actions: Town efforts that helped defeat a proposal by a Chicago-based developer to build a nearly 1,000-megawatt fossil-fuel power plant are well documented. Planning director Ray Goff said the town is supportive of solar energy and is currently reviewing “our ordinances for changes which will encourage appropriate” solar development. He noted that the town has included the protection of state-identified conservation opportunity zones in its recently approved comprehensive plan. He said this move will help protect local animal migration and nesting areas.

Training: Goff said five of the Planning Board’s nine members have gone through the training. He said he will reach out the remaining members to ensure they are aware of the requirement.


Local concern: Increased flooding.

Actions: Planning director Jonathan Stevens noted that the town’s 2016 comprehensive plan won an award from the Rhode Island chapter of the American Planning Association. He said the town, along with Central Falls and Pawtucket, persuaded the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to include 10-foot travel lanes and bicycle lanes as part of the $16.5 million Broad Street reconstruction project (2020-22). He noted that in 2016 the town bought 229-acre Mercy Woods, the second-largest open-space acquisition in Cumberland’s history.

Training: Stevens said some of the nine Planning Board members have taken the required course. He said those who haven’t have been asked to do so by the board’s next scheduled meeting, on Jan. 29.


Local concern: Increased flooding.

Actions: Patricia Resende, director of project management and communications, said the city, working with The Trust for Public Land, is utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) planning to prepare for a climate-resilient future. By using the trust’s Climate-Smart Cities program, she said the city is able to facilitate conversation with experts who will research, design, and develop infrastructure that will make the city more resilient to climate change.

The city’s hazard mitigation plan includes several adaption/mitigation goals: maintain and invest in the shoreline to protect residents and infrastructure from coastal flooding; develop “water-smart” parks and playgrounds that absorb rainfall and reduce flooding; protect green space to decrease the urban heat-island effect; continue to invest in trails, including the East Bay Bike Path, and carbon-free transportation that link residents and tourists to destinations; continue public outreach efforts with hazard mitigation workshops; maintain drainage infrastructure, such as catch basins, to reduce impacts from flooding.

She noted that the city plans to install LED light bulbs throughout City Hall, the police station, and the Fuller Creative Learning Center.

Training: Resende said she couldn’t find any paperwork documenting that any of the seven Planning Board members had completed the required training.


Local concern: Increased flooding.

Actions: Part-time town planner Ashley Hahn-Sweet said the town is updating its comprehensive plan and that it will be working on a climate-change adaptation section and it will also address energy use.

Training: Hahn-Sweet said most of the seven Planning Board members have completed the course, with a new member expected to take the course shortly.


Local concern: The town is at the headwaters of four watersheds (Blackstone, Woonasquatucket, Quinnebaug, and the Pawtuxet) and is subject to flooding during periods of heavy rain. Most of these areas are classified as being in an area that would be inundated by a 100-year flood event.

Actions: Town planner Karen Scott said efforts related to the climate crisis are outlined in the town’s comprehensive community plan. The plan, approved in 2018, notes that the town has been proactive in promoting energy efficiency within its facilities. In 2011, the town went out to bid on a geothermal heating/cooling system and was awarded state grant funding. Through the installation of 18 wells and the installation of a ground loop geothermal heating/cooling system, the town has saved an estimated $19,000 since its completion in 2012.

Training: Scott said the town gave the mandatory training to the seven members on May 20, 2019. She noted that two new Planning Board members have been appointed in the past month, “so we are coordinating with those two new members to get them the training.”

Local concern: Increased flooding and increasing rate of Lyme disease.
Actions: No response.
Training: No response from town or state.
JAMESTOWN (coastal)
Local concern: Coastal roads are at risk of being underwater with a foot of sea-level rise. North Road is among the most vulnerable in the state to sea-level rise, and Route 138 West is among the most vulnerable in the state to sea-level rise and storm surge.
Actions: No response.
Training: No response from town or state.
Local concern: Increased flooding.
Actions: No response.
Training: No response from town or state.


Local concern: “As rain storms become more intense due to climate change and increased build out overland and riverine flooding will continue to be a major concern,” according to the town’s
hazard mitigation plan.

Actions: Town planner Al Ranaldi said the town “follows all federal and state laws regarding climate change."

Training: Ranaldi said all seven Planning Board members have taken the course.

Local concern: Increased flooding and coastal erosion, and increasing rate of Lyme disease.
Actions: No response.
Training: No response from town or state.

MIDDLETOWN (coastal)

Local concern: Sachuest Beach is losing about a foot of shoreline annually.

Actions: The town is currently applying for the Municipal Resilience Program in partnership with the city of Newport, according to Rita Lavoie, the town’s principal planner and GIS manager. If selected, Middletown and Newport would cooperatively complete a community resilience building workshop.

She said the town’s hazard mitigation plan, updated last year, added new sections regarding climate-change hazards, risks, vulnerabilities, and mitigation actions. Recommended projects range from specific infrastructure alterations designed to reduce localized flooding to developing incentives for flood-zone property owners to implement flood-proofing.

With grant funding, four electric-vehicle charging stations have been installed on town property. In 2012, the town underwent energy-efficiency auditing and subsequent retrofits to Town Hall and the library. LED lighting and a high-efficiency HVAC system were installed with grant funding from the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources. Retrofitting of existing street lights with energy-efficient LED lighting is a project for the coming year.

Training: Lavoie said of the seven Planning Board members, five have completed the required the training to date, and two members who were appointed in 2019 haven’t yet fulfilled the requirement.


Local concern: Coastal roads at risk of being underwater with a foot of sea-level rise.

Actions: Community development director Michael DeLuca said given the town’s location, surrounded on three sides by water, it “has to be vigilant in addressing sensitive environmental issues.” He called climate crisis preparation “a never-ending responsibility.”

In 2017, the town completed construction of a flood-proofing barrier at its Scarborough wastewater treatment facility. He said the barrier was built to protect the facility, which is in a “vulnerable waterfront location” within the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 100-year flood zone, from extreme storms. The top of the barrier is 4 feet above FEMA’s 100-year flood elevation. In 2018, FEMA removed the facility from its Special Flood Hazard Area.

DeLuca noted that the town participates in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System, a voluntary program that recognizes and encourages floodplain management activities that exceed the minimum requirements of the program. The town has a rating of 7, which translates to a 15 percent discount on flood insurance for homes with federally backed mortgages in the Special Flood Hazard Area. He said this higher level of participation includes maintaining elevation certificates on all new or substantially improved properties, distributing a yearly mailing to all property owners in the floodplain, and publicly advertising the town’s ability to provide Flood Insurance Rate Map information to all who inquire.

Training: DeLuca said the majority of the five Planning Board members have completed the course.


Local concern: Wickford village is at risk of significant damage from 3 feet of sea-level rise, which would put the town dock underwater and threaten more than 100 properties collectively valued at between $68 million and $95 million. Culverts connecting stormwater systems to tidal systems could be overwhelmed and increase flooding of roads.

Actions: Principal planner Rebecca Lamond said the foundation of the town’s efforts was its collaboration with Rhode Island Sea Grant in 2011 on a pilot project to map assets of the town vulnerable to sea-level rise. The first phase had a goal of creating maps and online data display tools to identify sea-level rise vulnerabilities of local assets, including public property and infrastructure.

The second phase was initiated in 2012, when the town participated in a Division of Statewide 

Planning pilot program to explore the vulnerability of municipal assets, adaptation strategies, and implementation techniques that could be applied in coastal municipalities in the face of changing coastal conditions. This phase had a goal of developing a new element for the town’s comprehensive plan that addressed climate-change adaptation and created a detailed listing of priority transportation and land-use projects that support adaptation strategies.

The resulting report presented more than 100 adaptation strategies across 18 municipal sectors, including land use, transportation, building stock, municipal properties, and community facilities. The report evaluated 12 distinct neighborhood study areas for their exposure to sea-level rise. The number of parcels and structures, property values for parcels as well as linear feet of roadways that would be inundated were calculated for the sea level rise scenarios.

In 2015, the town partnered with the URI Coastal Resources Center and R.I. Sea Grant to determine how it could incorporate green infrastructure into community resiliency planning and policies. The project also considered how green infrastructure could help in redesigning vulnerable coastal assets, such as the Brown Street municipal parking lot. The proposed improvements included measures to maintain resiliency in the face of mounting pressures of sea-level rise and storm surges, such as raised platforms and a variety of low-impact development treatment areas to improve stormwater drainage.

Training: Only one of the town’s seven Planning Commission members has completed the training, according to Lamond.


Local concern: Increased flooding and heat.

Actions: Town planner David Westcott said the town has undertaken two important efforts to address impacts of building in floodplains: adopt flood hazard regulations within its zoning ordinance (Section 317) that prohibit and/or place strict limitations on construction in Federal Emergency Management Agency designated flood areas; and provide new data to FEMA and the U.S. Geological Survey to revise all of the town’s floodplain mapping so that it more accurately represents location and frequency of flooding.

“These new data resulted in dramatic changes to the predicted extent of flooding, reducing it significantly,” he said.

Training: “We have encouraged our Planning Board members to complete training in sea-level rise and building in floodplains, but I don’t have a record of which members have actually done so,” Westcott said.


Local concern: Increased flooding.

Actions: Town planner Tom Kravitz said that as a general practice the Planning Board works by ordinances and subdivision regulations to ensure stormwater systems are designed appropriately. He noted that stormwater management and system designs are important because of the higher frequency of heavy rains. He said his department pays attention to the latest flood zone data to ensure new development doesn't exacerbate flooding problems.

Training: “I am unsure as to whether my Planning Board members have taken the floodplain development education modules. While aware of that change in the law, I thank you for bringing that to my attention. I’m going to check on it,” Kravitz said.

PROVIDENCE (coastal)

Local concerns: The city’s downtown is at risk of significant damage from 3 feet of sea-level rise. Sea-level rise of 5-7 feet would cover the downtown financial district and the Port of Providence in water, without even taking storm surge into consideration. Two bridges (Eagle Street Bridge and Park Street Bridge) are among the most vulnerable in the state to sea-level rise.

Actions: A mayor’s spokesperson said “the administration takes the threat of climate change seriously, pledging to become a climate neutral city by 2050 by conserving energy in municipal buildings and switching to renewables.”

Since 2010, energy use in municipal buildings is down 15 percent and greenhouse-gas emissions are down about 30 percent, according to the mayor’s office. The city is planning on procuring its first electric vehicle and installing the charging infrastructure this year to start transitioning the municipal fleet off fossil fuels.

“Reducing the number of cars on the road and creating the infrastructure to safely support and encourage people to use public transit, ride bicycles, and walk will also be key to meeting our transportation carbon reduction goals,” the spokesperson wrote.

Once completed, the Great Streets master plan will outline more than 300 intersections in need of safety improvements, more than 70 miles of new urban trails, and more than 30 recommendations to improve existing policies, procedures, and regulations to help improve neighborhood safety and connectivity.

The city recently published a Climate Justice Plan that outlines seven key objectives, 20-plus targets, and more than 50 strategies to create an equitable, low-carbon, climate-resilient city.

Training: Six of the City Plan Commission’s seven members have completed the required training, according to the mayor’s office. The only member not to have completed the course is relatively new and will be trained soon.


Local concern: Increased flooding.

Actions: Town planner Shaun Lacey said the town plans to enter into the state’s Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy Program. He said the Town Council is expected to approve a resolution to that effect this week. He noted that the town is in the early stages of performing a low-impact development self-assessment. He said the assessment is designed to identify opportunities to reduce stormwater runoff and improve stormwater management by implementing green infrastructure near its point source. The assessment is tentatively scheduled to be completed in the spring.

Training: “Our long-standing board members have undergone the training. I should note that we had some new members join us during the summer so I doubt that they went through that training due to time considerations,” Lacey said.

TIVERTON (coastal)

Local concern: Increased flooding and coastal erosion.

Actions: Town administrator Jan Reitsma said the town tries to work with various organizations, such as URI’s Coastal Resources Center and Coastal Institute, to protect significant natural resource areas and waterfront infrastructure from storms and rising water and to better manage stormwater.

He noted that turnover on the Town Council, Planning Board, and Zoning Board and in the planing department makes it difficult for Tiveton, and other municipalities, to more effectively deal with the challenges presented by the climate crisis.

“That leads to all kinds of backlog situations, in which ‘bigger picture’ issues such as climate resilience easily get pushed to the background,” he wrote. “At the same time, as in many towns, public awareness and sense of urgency is still lacking, at all levels. That is not to say that nothing has been done or nobody cares. The challenge as always is to move beyond planning into implementation, which has suffered from that turnover, and in particular from the lengthy vacancy in the planner position.”

He also emphasized how important state leadership and assistance is to help get things moving at the municipal level.

“Towns like Tiverton frequently lack resources necessary to even take the first steps,” he said. 

“Vulnerability assessment, for example, is something that, in a small state like ours, the state can and should take the lead on, as it is the only way to take the conversation out of the eternal debate stage, make the risks as well as possible solutions more real to the deniers and doubters, and to demonstrate what can be done, in a practical sense.”

Training: Reitsma said four of the nine Planning Board members have completed the course. He noted that the chair of the Zoning Board also took the training, and the town’s building official is expected to do the same.

Coastal flooding, as pictured here in March 2014 on Main Street in Warren, is being caused by more frequent and intense rains and storms. (ecoRI News)

WARWICK (coastal)

Local concern: Shoreline erosion. Six bridges (Warwick Avenue Bridge, Apponaug Bridge, Apponaug Mill Bridge, Carpenters Corner Bridge, Cottage Home Bridge, and Babbitt Farm Bridge) are among the most vulnerable in the state to sea-level rise and storm surge.

Actions: Planning Department employee Susan Baker said with funding from CRMC, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and Save The Bay recently addressed sea-level rise concerns at Longmeadow Beach, which has experienced more than 100 feet of shoreline erosion during the past 75 years, resulting in repeated flooding that has compromised infrastructure and limited access. The project entailed removing asphalt that extended into the tidal area, removing illegally dumped bulky waste, grading and improving the parking surface, and restoring the dune and marsh with the planting of native shrubs and beach grass.

She noted that the city is partnering with Save The Bay to seek funding for a coastal adaptation project along Oakland Beach, in an area that has “experienced significant erosion and flooding, resulting in impassable roadways and risk to nearby properties during significant storms.” The plan is to restore coastal embankments, reduce erosion, mitigate flooding, and maintain adequate access to the waterfront in the area between Seaview Drive and Strand Avenue.

She said the city is working with the Coastal Green and Resilient Infrastructure Project to design plans featuring green infrastructure tools and techniques for reducing the impacts of flooding and erosion, storm surge, and sea-level rise.

The city is collaborating with CRMC and the Army Corps of Engineers in a three-year coastal storm risk management study, with the intent of investigating and identifying opportunities to address flood and coastal storm risk management measures.

The Warwick Sewer Authority has raised its berm to protect the treatment facility and continues flood proofing and elevating pump stations in flood-risk areas.

Baker noted that the city continues to support bringing Amtrak service to the InterLink intermodal center in City Centre.

Training: Baker said all nine Planning Board members have completed the course.


Local concern: Increased flooding and heat.

Actions: Steven Lima, acting director of planning and development, said the city’s hazard mitigation plan includes a section on how climate change will impact the city and exacerbate the impacts of natural hazards. He said the plan includes action items that address identified areas of concern.

The city, in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, recently bought a 55-acre forested parcel that will be preserved in perpetuity as conservation land. The parcel is one of the largest remaining undeveloped tracts of unprotected land in the city and abuts the 45-acre Iron Rock Brook Conservation area.

The city currently has a a request for proposals out regarding the conversion of its streetlights to LED. The Planning Board recently amended its subdivision regulations to reduce required street widths for new developments and, where practical, for road reconstruction projects. The intent of the amendment was to calm traffic, reduce stormwater runoff, and save developers money, while maintaining appropriate road width for emergency vehicles.

“As more frequent, heavy rainstorms are expected as a result of climate change, this change will lessen the load placed on our stormwater management infrastructure,” according to Lima.

The city is developing a new solar ordinance. The updated ordinance will be based on state guidance and good examples from other municipalities. During the writing process, city staff performed site visits to arrays of different types and sizes, spoke with state officials, and obtained feedback from developers. The goal of the ordinance is to offer clear guidance to developers while protecting the city from undesirable development.

Training: Lima said all five Planning Board members underwent the required training prior to last September’s deadline. He noted that since then one member resigned and another was appointed. The new member hasn’t yet completed the required course.