2015-10-15 / Around Town

Comprehensive Plan Update Begins in Earnest

By Barry Bridges

With a public workshop on Tuesday, Oct. 13, the City of Newport officially launched its efforts to update its comprehensive land use plan, a document that will help to define strategic objectives over the next 20 years.

Around two dozen residents gathered for the session at Pell Elementary School to begin the process of outlining the best vision for Newport, along with supporting goals and policies. City Planner Christine O’Grady, Planning Board Chair Kim Salerno, and a consultant, Matthew Davis of Matrix Design Group, led the discussions concerning the importance of the project and how it will unfold.

The Planning Board is the primary public entity responsible for the plan’s development and will be a key player. The board will work with O’Grady, city staff, and Davis in developing, reviewing, and ultimately adopting a new plan and delivering it to the council for review and approval.

“This serves as a guide for all of our decisions, and has a ripple effect over all things that happen in the city,” Salerno told the group. “One of the most important goals for tonight is discussing our vision. I’m hoping that it will be the perfect balance between stewardship and innovation. Our plan will recognize that a lot is going on in Newport, and we want to approach these things while going in the same direction.”

By state law, an updated plan has to be filed every 10 years with state officials, and the next iteration is due by June 1, 2016. For the foreseeable future it will be a major focus for O’Grady, who assumed her post in July. She acknowledged as she was settling into City Hall that the comprehensive plan would be one of her priorities. “It is the biggest project that we have to get going on,” she said after she was hired. “It involves statewide regulations, public information sessions, and identifying goals and implementation strategies.”

Davis was brought on as an expert who will handle the nuts and bolts of the plan, which he described as a “living document” that incorporates many aspects of the community. “Once completed, it doesn’t just sit on a shelf,” he said. “It should always be revisited and updated so that it always reflects what the community wants to be down the road.”

He compared the task to planning that goes on within a family. “If you have a kid that wants to go to Dartmouth, you constantly reevaluate and make adjustments so that it can happen.”

Rhode Island has a more formal hierarchy of planning than many states, and there are mandatory elements that must be addressed in the document under state law, including housing, natural resources, open space, cultural resources, and economic development. Legislation in 2011 added other required components, such as capital facilities (for example, water infrastructure), natural hazards, energy, and specific time frames for implementation.

The goal is for all of those areas to work together, integrating into a comprehensive strategy for the city.

Davis also described larger themes that will inform the process, including an emphasis on good stewardship. “We have an obligation to future generations, and a big part of comprehensive planning is that we want to leave a better world to our kids and grandkids.” Other considerations, Davis said, are connectivity (not only through roads and bike paths, but also through the availability of digital information), social equity (whether the plan encourages and promotes the equitable allocation of resources), and the “supporting of place” (cherishing the exceptional while “repairing the damaged cells”).

Newport’s current comprehensive plan was adopted in 2004, and may be referenced on the city’s main website. “A lot has changed since then, more than you typically see in a 10-year period,” said Davis.

The city administration elaborates at newportchartingourcourse.com, a new website that has been set up to keep the public informed about the project. “Major employers have moved, technology has advanced, and changes in global climate conditions have contributed to sea level rise, more frequent and intense storm events, elevated flood levels and storm surge, all of which threaten [our] economy, property and citizens. Funding for necessary capital infrastructure is hard to find and our population is becoming older and more diverse. These changes create challenges, but also opportunities. The plan update needs to address all of this and more.”

“It’s well worth the effort and money and resources that go into comprehensive planning,” Davis remarked.

A timeline has been established to ensure that the project stays on schedule. A second community meeting will be held in late February or early March, with a full draft of the plan finalized by mid-March. At that time a joint Planning Board/ City Council hearing will gather public input, and a final hearing will be in May.

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