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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Actions speak louder?

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff

PROVIDENCE — For the second straight year, Gov. Lincoln Chafee ignored the environment, and climate change, in his State of the State address (pdf). But some of his actions are speaking louder than his public speeches.

In his proposed 2014 fiscal budget, Chafee puts money and resources toward open space and habitat protection, environmental enforcement and renewable energy.

Renewable energy. Chafee proposes shifting the Renewable Energy Fund (REF), including two employees, from the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to the Office of Energy Resources (OER). The move would transfer the REF from the embattled EDC to the OER, where director Marion Gold has been successfully mobilizing environmental efforts, such as revamping the state’s energy plan, and improving energy-efficiency and renewable-energy initiatives. 

In particular, the change of address for the REF would streamline Rhode Island's fixed-pricing renewable energy program, which promotes large wind, solar, hydro and anaerobic energy projects. The $6.5 million REF also recently announced new incentives to promote small-scale residential and business solar energy projects.

"We view the move of the REF back to the OER as an opportunity to more efficiently provide financial and technical energy assistance to the Rhode Island community. It also will help us coordinate various energy programs — renewables, efficiency, alternative fuels and energy security — and more effectively leverage different funding sources," Gold said.

Open space. The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) would get $14 million for open space protection; nearly $24 million for grants to municipalities to buy land for recreational activities, plus $43 million in municipal bond proceeds to develop and rehabilitate local recreational areas.
To protect farmland from commercial and residential development, the governor allocates $18.5 million to buy farm conservation rights.

State agencies. The DEM also would get $5 million for expanding bike paths, greenways and off-road facilities. An additional $1.5 million is proposed for the Blackstone Valley bike path, and $6 million is set aside for grants for historic walking trails, gazebos and picnic tables.

The governor proposes two new environmental police officers, two dispatchers and deputy chief of forestry for the DEM. DEM’s director, Janet Coit, has pushed for the added enforcement positions, which have been vacant for some time.

The proposed 2014 budget also includes $100,000, plus matching private funds, for the local seafood and agriculture marketing initiative.

The Bureau of Natural Resources receives a proposed $1.7 for wildlife habitat development. Rocky Point gets $2.5 million for renovation of the 78-acre site — $10 million was spent last year to buy the property. The Arcadia Management Area would receive $1.8 million as part of a $3.3 million project for a new visitors center and office building. An additional $1.1 million is marked for recreational facilities.

Funds are also set aside for fish passage restoration, salt marsh restoration and dam improvements. Along the southern coastline, $9.2 million is tabbed for ongoing coastal restoration projects, such as eelgrass seeding, and dredging breachways and ponds.

The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) would get additional federal funds for river ecosystem restoration ($607,014) and Narragansett Bay habitat restoration ($145,976). Overall, the proposed CRMC budget is relatively unchanged at $5.2 million with 29 full-time employees.

On Jan. 8, Chafee gave his support for comprehensive sustainable development cross Rhode Island. As part of an update to the state plan, the Division of Planning is revamping and updating statewide strategies for energy, transportation, housing, economic development and land use. Updates for energy and waste are already underway.

The Land Use 2025 project, however, is expected to create a framework for the other plan updates. The new land-use project promotes concentrated economic development, open space and farmland protection, while also preserving existing historic and cultural infrastructure. The three-year land-use plan and public outreach is in the first year. Watch a video here.

The state budget for fiscal 2014 must be completed by July 1. Between January and June 30, House and Senate committees review the budget and hold public hearings. A final budget is approved by the General Assembly before the governor signs the bill.