Senate President Dominick Ruggerio will hold a meeting later today – 4 p.m. in Room 313 – on his legislation to “streamline” the development process for projects on state land in every city and town in Rhode Island. This is not really an effort to make the process more efficient. It is an effort to violate the right of the public, though local governments, to influence what is built in their communities.
Make no mistake. This legislation was birthed in anger by Ruggerio, who feels personally affronted by the success, so far, of opponents of the Fane tower project on Route 195 land in Providence. Assuming that his care for workers is his main interest in this matter, he has allowed the priorities of his day job as a labor leader to undermine his duty as an elected officer of the state to protect the rights of his own constituents and, as president of the state Senate, those of all Rhode Islanders.
According to an April 11 Senate press release, the legislation would:
[Establish] a process for creating Special Economic Development Districts on state-owned tracts of 20 or more contiguous acres. These special districts would be vested with the authority to adopt development plans that include land use, location of buildings, street systems, dimension and height requirements, parking, landscaping, design review and population density.
In brief, it would take over those responsibilities from any of 39 Rhode Island cities and towns where the state wants to develop land itself or promote private development on state land of 20 acres or more.
Most projects go through easily, as did the Wexford Innovation Center right across the street from the proposed Fane tower. But when a project tries to violate local rules – such as the 100-foot height limit mandated by zoning on land proposed for that tower – the process becomes more complicated and time-consuming. The Fane developer was able to get a weak Providence city council to override a mayoral veto and raise the height limit to 600 feet, but that took time, cost money, and generated a lawsuit.
Efforts to game the system usually take more time, especially if intelligent local civic leaders and groups, such as the Jewelry District Association and its allies in the Fane case, are alert and try to force developers to obey the law. This does not mean that the development process is inefficient and in need of “streamlining.” It means the process is working. Ruggerio’s legislation is not about streamlining the process, it is about steamrolling the process.
Let’s hope many people show up at the State House today for a show of strength against this proposed effort to silence the voice of the people in their own communities.