For illustration of the challenges that the State of Rhode Island imposes on its residents and businesses — and the inadequacy of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s approach to moving the state forward without removing them — it would be difficult to do better than H7833.
Submitted by Democrat Representative Joseph Shekarchi (Warwick) at the request of the administration, the bill allows cities and towns to create a “unified development review” process at the municipal level. In essence, when developers find that they have to go to both the planning board and the zoning board of a city or town for variances, the unified review would allow the planning board to grant or deny variances on some matters that would otherwise go to the zoning board. (The appeals process, typically to the city or town council, would remain in place.)
On first glance, H7833 looks like a bill empowering unelected planning boards to take control over development, with regulatory and review powers and enhanced authority over the city or town’s comprehensive plan. But that’s only because the legislation consolidates language scattered throughout title 45 of the state general laws, without deleting the source statutes. For now, anyway, the legislation does not appear to decrease the final authority of elected officials.
Even so, a bill that seeks to consolidate the hoops through which Rhode Islanders must jump to develop their own property raises the more-basic question: Why is the state creating all these hoops at the local level to begin with? If cities or towns find it in their interest to appoint planning boards or commissions, they can do that, but forcing them to do so assumes that legislators in Westerly should assume authority over the activities of the people of Cumberland and gives the unelected state Division of Planning a direct channel into local decision making.
If Rhode Island is going to untangle itself, we have to trust each other to make the best decisions for ourselves, our families, and our local communities. A strategy limited to making Rhode Island life and business just a little less surreal is wholly inadequate to the challenges that we face.