2015-01-15 / Opinion

Take Things Slowly


RhodeMap RI, the ambitious “economic development” program unveiled in 2014, continues to evoke positive reviews from some people and dire warnings from others.

For those still in the dark on all of this, here’s what’s going on. Simply put, the state of Rhode Island accepted a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop the plan. Critics maintain that the grant comes with onerous “strings” attached.

These include requirements that cities and states accepting HUD funds adhere to the department’s requirements concerning where to locate affordable housing and how to accomplish economic development to ensure that improvements made with HUD funds are “sustainable.”

Some critics go so far as to predict that taking this grant money from HUD would enable the federal government to usurp control of local zoning matters. They also characterize portions of the plan as an attempt to achieve “social engineering.”

And so, we wonder, what are “just plain folks” of Aquidneck Island supposed to think about all of this? We ask that question as our own heads buzz with considerable confusion concerning this topic.

If you’re keeping score at home, here is where things seem to stand at the moment on our island:

Middletown officials—most of them, anyway—seem okay with RhodeMap RI. Ronald M. Wolanski, the town’s director of planning and economic development, said he and the town administrator looked the RhodeMap RI plan over and could find nothing that would turn local zoning control over to HUD.

In Newport, City Councilor Kathryn Leonard said that to ensure local control over land use, she will propose a resolution declaring that Newport won’t take part in the program. At the same time, Newport Mayor and Council Chair Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said she doubts whether such a resolution would pass.

To the north, meanwhile, the Portsmouth Town Council last Dec. 8 (three days before the Statewide Planning Council unanimously approved RhodeMap RI) passed a resolution expressing concerns about the plan and asking the General Assembly to hold hearings and slow things down a bit.

What’s not entirely clear to us—and, it seems, to others as well—is what exactly is supposed to happen next. Does the legislature have to enact new laws? Does RhodeMap RI get used completely, bit by bit, or not at all? And by whom? Newport This Week tried to ask the state planning folks these questions but they sadly declined the opportunity to respond.

While trying to digest all of this, our attention was directed to another 2014 Rhode Island economic development initiative by Commerce RI, a state government entity chaired by no less than the governor. Supporting documents, available online like RhodeMap RI, seem to describe a straightforward economic development plan without a mention of social goals that detractors attach to the HUD-sponsored program.

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