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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What exactly is “rural character”?

It’s a key part of our town’s ordinances and our Comprehensive Plan, but there is no definition of it
By Will Collette
So much of Charlestown’s official policy is based on the need to preserve Charlestown’s “rural character.” The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) has elevated “rural character” into our official town religion, as in “Thou shalt not do anything that harms Charlestown’s ‘rural character.’”

They invoke protecting the town’s “rural character” whenever they oppose something – which is pretty often, such as denying the Dollar Stores the chance to put one of their stores in Cross Mills.

They will surely make copious use of the phrase when they reveal the long-overdue re-write of the town’s Comprehensive Plan.

Yet what exactly does “rural character” mean? In my work life, I travelled to all 50 states and worked primarily in rural areas – from the deserts of the Navajo lands, to the hills and hollows of Appalachia, to the Mississippi delta, to the farm lands of the Midwest to the vast expanses of prairie in Montana and chose to live here in "rural" Rhode Island.

But “rural character” is not just trees and rocks and sparse population. For some, “rural character” means roughing it and living off the land, even if it means hardship, poverty and hunger, and being vulnerable to the whims of nature. 

For others, it means getting away from other people. For some, it means a style of community far different than what they knew or thought they knew in the cities. For others, it is a romantic ideal that exists only in their imaginations.

Since so much of life in Charlestown is governed by the vision of “rural character” applied by the CCA Party, which has ruled Charlestown since 2008, I wanted to know what their definition of “rural character” actually is.

Last July 27, I sent the town a request under the Access to Public Records Act for any record showing:
“…the definition or definitions used by the Planning Commission to define the term “rural character” which appears so frequently in their deliberations and reports. I am interested in getting a copy of the page where the term is defined and the cover page of the source so I can see the detail on the source (author, publishers, date of publication).”
Here is the response I received from Town Clerk Amy Weinreich on August 7:
“Based on research and communication with other Town Departments and the Town’s Solicitors, the Town does not have any responsive documents regarding your July 27, 2015 email request for “an electronic copy of the definition or definitions used by the Planning Commission to define the term ‘rural character’ ”, and “a copy of the page where the term is defined and the cover page of the source”. However, according to the Town Planner, this term is referenced in the Town’s Subdivision Regulations and the Zoning Ordinance as follows:
“Subdivision Regulations:“Section 1  Authority and Purpose“1.3 Policies“D. Preservation of the rural character of the Town“Zoning Ordinance:“Section 218-2. Purpose/consistency with Comprehensive Plan/state laws“B. Purposes“(2) Providing for a range of uses and intensities of use appropriate to the rural character of the Town and reflecting current and expected future needs.
Obviously, this doesn’t answer my request for the definition of “rural character” but actually illustrates the problem. 

How do you craft laws, policies and a Comprehensive Plan focused on “preserving” something that you can’t define?

Charlestown won’t get any help finding a legal definition of “rural character” from the feds, either.

According to the Washington Post, there are fifteen separate and distinct legal definitions of “rural” in federal regulations.

The US Department of Agriculture contributes to this mess by having 11 of those 15 definitions used by divisions within the USDA.

These different definitions matter, but they also seem to be arbitrary. For one USDA program, rural means having less than 50,000 people. For another USDA program, the ceiling drops to 20,000. For another, it’s 10,000. For another, it’s 5,000.

For another, it’s 2,500 which is also the number the Census bureau uses.

That means that Charlestown, with its 7,827 officially Census-enumerated souls, fails to meet the Census Bureau definition of rural. We also fail to qualify as “rural” under a variety of federal definitions that use population density as the criteria.

Nobody defines “character,” although the feds often use a term similar to Charlestown, “rural in character,” as they do in the program for rural development loan and grant programs. The USDA also uses a related term, again without actual definition, “not urban in character.”

Perhaps the CCA Party is following the lead of late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who wrote in his opinion in the Jacobellis v. Ohio pornography case that, while he could not come up with a definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” That made some people wonder at the time how much porn Justice Stewart had actually seen to be able to make that the basis of his judgment.

The only thing we can do, I suppose, is say Charlestown is rural compared to someplace else. Like New York. Or Westerly. Or Central Falls. 

However, in my opinion, we are not as rural as, for example, Richmond, West Greenwich, Foster, Burrillville or Little Compton.

Charlestown has long used the “we’re not them” approach to carve itself out from the rest of the state on the mistaken belief that somehow we are exceptional. 

That’s why Charlestown tried to get exempted from the state’s mandated recycling program.

It’s why the CCA town leaders have tried to get Charlestown exempted from the state’s affordable housing mandate.

It’s why Charlestown is one of the only municipalities in Rhode Island to reject green energy development.

We do have lots of quarries - active, abandoned and under the radar
(Click toe enlarge)
Even within Charlestown, there’s a world of difference between the kind of “rural character” you’ll find up north above Burlingame and in the dense warren of beach houses near Charlestown Town Beach. Or between stately beach front mansions and the working class neighborhoods along and off South County Trail.

Nonetheless and in absence of any useful definition, this notion of "rural character" is the core of Charlestown's public policy. 

Since 2008, the CCA Party has enforced its vision of what our town is supposed to be, now and forever. Yet this town is a whole lot more than the well-to-do retirees and wealthy summer beach residents who fund the CCA Party

If and when we all finally get to see the new Comprehensive Plan for Charlestown’s future, I hope the interests of all, and not just the CCA’s backers, will be reflected in it. Not that I’m holding my breath in expectation.