News

House Commission on Land Use and Zoning deserves public scrutiny

Commission Chair Deller said that in conversations with Speaker Shekarchi, he learned that the Speaker was interested in finding out what land Rhode Island has that can be developed – very valuable information. The Speaker is also interested in streamlining the development process and doing more approvals online as much as possible.
Photo for House Commission on Land Use and Zoning deserves public scrutiny

Published on October 7, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The first meeting of Speaker Joseph Shekarchi‘s Special Commission on Land Use took place on Tuesday and given the scope of the commission and some of the things said during the meeting, public attention should be brought to bear. The purpose of the commission, as expressed in the 2021 House Bill 5950, submitted by Shekarchi and Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski, is to “undertake a comprehensive study and a broad based review of the entire areas of land use, preservation, production, development, housing, environment, and regulation, in the state, and provide recommendations based upon this study and review, that will enable the state to ensure and promote land use which allows for sustainable and equitable economic growth.”

Speaker Shekarchi’s family law firm specializes in land use, zoning and business development.

During the commission hearing, as the committee’s scope and purpose were discussed the commission’s mandate became focused. The commission will begin, perhaps as early as next week, by holding a session that provides an overview of how planning and land use work in Rhode Island right now, a kind of Planning 101. Future sessions will focus on land development, zoning and preservation.

Commission Chair Thomas Deller said that in conversations with Speaker Shekarchi, he learned that the Speaker was interested in finding out what land Rhode Island has that can be developed – very valuable information. The Speaker is also interested in streamlining the development process and doing more approvals online as much as possible.

Due to technical issues, there were no cameras in the room during the hearing, only audio. This added to the fact that Commission Chair Deller was not always identifying speakers, makes it hard to know who precisely was speaking during the hearing.

Limiting Public Input

The commission may also take up ways to limit the public’s input into zoning, land uses, climate change mitigation and more. Commission member Patricia Reynolds, who works as the Director of Planning in Newport, said that “the public process is definitely something we should be discussing as a topic.”

Reynolds criticized public input into zoning and planning, saying that the CRMC and zoning boards sometimes “cave to public pressure and can’t always make good decisions – they can’t always step back.” Reynolds wants the commission to take steps to limit public comment, asking, “Where [in the approval process] does the public get the opportunity to weigh in and how does that impact the board and negatively or positively impact residences and businesses?”

Chair Deller, who works as the Planning Director for both Central Falls and Johnson, had commented earlier in the hearing that, “Our [project approval] process is designed take too much time. It’s important to have public input, but it’s important to understand that time is money and we need to make things happen.”

Global warming “could quickly switch the other way”

Perhaps the oddest and most disturbing comment from a commission member came from Henry Wright III, representing the Rhode Island Farm Bureau.

“There are good and bad to everything. Climate change [and] global warming has plusses, as well as minuses. Rhode Island is in a unique situation where we’re very adaptable to either the climate cooling or the climate warming,” said Wright. “People are used to hot water here and they’re used to cold water. We don’t have the situation like out in Texas where it suddenly got cold and they are fish out of water. If there are areas where we could take advantage of this global warming – and some global warming despite the best laid plans of mice and men is still going to continue to get warmer – and I’m really concerned that some places are not taking advantage of what’s going to happen with global warming and do we plan to take advantage of that. That’s definitely an area we should look at.

“The other side of the coin is – This global warming may not last for ever. It’s bigger than what we are. So always keep that in the back of your mind – It could switch quickly the other way.”

There is no data – no science – to suggest that global warming “could switch quickly the other way.” In order to be successful this commission needs to deal with facts, and it should also be concerned with expanding economic democracy and getting more people involved in zoning and land use decisions, not just bureaucrats, lawyers and businesses more interested in profits than people.

Commission:

  • Chair Thomas Deller – Central Falls Planning Director 3 days a week and Planner for Two of Johnston 2 days a week
  • Vice Chair Maria Mack – South Kingstown Planning Board

Members:

  • Richard Boren – Jamestown Zoning Board of Review
  • Meredith Brady – Division of State Planning
  • Dylan Conley – Attorney and Chair of PVD Liquor Board
  • Julietta Georgakis – Department of Business Regulations
  • Terrence Gray – Department of Environmental Management
  • Topher Hamblett – Save the Bay
  • Nate Kelly – Horsley Witten Group
  • Cortney Nicolato – United Way of Rhode Island
  • Patricia Reynolds – Newport Planning Director
  • Lawrence JF Taft – Audubon Society of Rhode Island
  • Henry Wright III – Rhode Island Farm Bureau

Absent:

  • Margarita Robledo Guedes – Green and Healthy Homes Initiative
  • John V Marcantonio – Rhode Island Builders Association
  • Edinaldo Tebaldi – Bryant University

Did you enjoy this article?


More News Coverage