Planning for a rainy day

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Mark Twain wrote that everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. But that's not true.

The catastrophic floods last week have closed businesses and ruined many people's homes. We can be grateful there was no loss of life, but it was an epic tragedy in lost property, time and wages.

This past week I heard a lot of people say the disaster was a "hundred-year" flood. We only hope that's correct. The rain was certainly intense, but we've been busy over the years, preparing the ground to make floods worse.

The fact is that Rhode Island does not value its open space, and that is simply asking for trouble when it rains. Some of the trouble is obvious: building on a swamp or right to the edge of a riverbank is risky because that's where the water goes when it rains. Some is subtler: rain that might be absorbed by dirt runs right off asphalt, or a roof. Every swamp we replace with a parking lot, every woodlot we raze for a strip mall or big-box store, and every farm we convert to suburban housing just makes water run down to the rivers faster than it used to. The entirely predictable result: when it rains, rivers run faster and higher today than ever before.

In other words, preserving open space isn't just about pacifying tree-hugging environmentalists, it's about making floods less serious when they happen. It's also about making sure we still have clean water to drink, local food to eat, songbirds to gobble mosquitoes, frogs to sing in the spring and all the other wonders of the natural world that enrich our lives, but on which we also depend.

What is there to do about this? Almost 20 years ago, I helped write legislation to establish Rhode Island's Housing and Conservation Trust Fund (I did the revenue projections for the coalition pushing for it). This would have created renewable fund cities and towns could use to purchase open space and create and preserve affordable housing. Originally designed to be funded through the real estate transfer tax, the legislation – and the coalition of environmentalists and housing advocates behind it – became a model for other states.

Except for one tiny detail. Though state law established the fund, on its way through the House Finance Committee the funding was abandoned during some backroom deal. Today, the fund legally exists, created by chapter 42-113 of the General Laws, but it has no money in it. You can't make this up: Legislators in 1994 were able to pat themselves on the back for voting for this fine-sounding bill, but it did exactly nothing (though the fund was legally empowered to accept private donations, you'll be happy to know).

Bills I helped write to fix the situation were rejected in 1999, 2001 and 2005, opposed by real estate investors and agents determined to ignore the benefits to the community and preserve the outsize profits they were earning at the time.

Today, since the Assembly has repeatedly chosen not to budget to preserve open space, preservation remains an ad hoc, town by town kind of thing, funded occasionally by state borrowing.

Worse, most of our towns can't afford to preserve open space because they live in a world of declining state support and increasing state requirements. Squeezed from the top and the bottom, most towns today see land-use planning as an exercise in maximizing property tax revenue for the town, not in maximizing the health, safety and pleasure of its residents.

We feel the pain when there's a problem, but towns are thwarted from preventing those problems by the fiscal straits they have been put in.

Sensible planning means much more than preserving open space and protecting wetlands, but the flood protection function is, as we saw, not something to be ignored. We're going to remember the Flood of 2010 for years. But if we continue paving our state, you can be sure that a worse disaster is still ahead.

It doesn't take much planning to avoid disasters, nor does it take much money to preserve open space. But the sensible way to do it is to start now. By creating a real program to save our open space, by finding a way to execute sensible statewide planning that doesn't bankrupt our towns and by understanding that this kind of sense is crucial to preventing disaster, we can prepare for the future, save a ton of money and keep everyone safer. Isn't that what government is “for?”

Tom Sgouros is a democratic candidate for General Treasurer.

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