Food for Thought on Sustainable Growth
On 11/15/21, in response to a suggestion made by Town Council President Greg Mancini, the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) put on an incredibly well-attended event on smart growth [full event video here - second video down]. The featured panelists were NK's Planning Director Nicole LaFontaine and Scott Wolf of Grow Smart RI. Panelists and residents alike shared concerns and strategies on how to balance necessary growth with sustainability and preservation relative to quality of life, natural resources, and town character – or, as Grow Smart RI puts it, balancing “sustainable economic growth and quality of place.”
Rather than attempting to recap the entire conversation – which was dynamic, fast-paced, and multi-faceted – I decided to share a few points that really resonated with me as “food for thought.” In most cases, there were no obvious or easy answers. Rather, the evening's conversation can serve as a starting point for further analysis and planning. Indeed, each subtopic raised could warrant its own forum. Most of all, I hope the incredible turnout we saw sets a precedent for future community involvement pertaining to this issue.
Here are just some of the salient points of discussion raised during the event, which I hope will generate ongoing discussion:
Nicole gave an excellent overview of the town’s economic history – a history which drove what areas would be developed, and how. To this day, much of North Kingstown remains rural while some sectors, like the Post Rd corridor, were developed for commerce. These distinct differences between neighborhoods and zones can also drive future decisions around development in regards to preserving character.
One resident lamented that some see a growing population of children only as a cumbersome taxpayer burden. He said that when moving to North Kingstown from out-of-state, he and his wife specifically looked for bustling schools, busy churches, and other signs of a vibrant, growing community. In his former community, a dramatic influx of wealthy homeowners may have brought in more tax revenue – but, he argued, they were mostly part-year residents. The absence of vested community stakeholders created what he referred to as a “dying town.”
There was concern for how certain un-neighborly behaviors can or cannot be regulated as more homes are built – for instance, issues related to light pollution, or the planting and removal of trees and how this affects pre-existing private dwellings.
What does “affordable housing” really mean for NK – and who requires such housing? Is it the stereotypical, outdated notion of “those people,” coming from “out of town,” who allegedly do not contribute to the economy? Or is it a working family who cannot keep up with rising housing costs amidst stagnant wages? Is it the recent retiree on a fixed income? Is it a new college graduate who wants to come back to their hometown, but cannot afford to do so? Is it some combination thereof?
Some residents complained about recent, larger-scale developments like Reynold’s Farm – but Nicole pointed out that these larger developments have sold “like hotcakes,” suggesting there is a very real need for these diverse housing offerings for everyone from young families to retirees to folks in between. The Post Rd corridor, she contended, is not a rural area anyway and is already developed for mixed use purposes.
How can we invest in sustainable growth that considers green transportation and transit hubs? Expanded housing by Wickford Junction could in turn drive expanded train service. Are there opportunities for buses, vans, or trolleys that could circulate between Wickford Junction, Wickford Village, Quonset, and other high-demand areas? Could it be possible to visit – or even live in – North Kingstown without a car? (Town Manager Ralph Mollis assured the community that this is a particular area of interest for the town, and that talks with the state pertaining to these very issues will continue.)
In a chicken-or-egg scenario, what needs to come first in order to improve the Post Rd corridor: expanded and improved commerce, or a growing population that will frequent businesses in that area?
How might overly restrictive growth policies limit people from moving to, returning to, or staying in North Kingstown? How might an overly permissive growth policy do the same?
This is by no means a comprehensive summary. Please be sure to watch the video in full (here). If sustainability is a topic that interests you, I would also strongly suggest this report, which highlights NK’s work to-date with the Municipal Resilience Program (MRP). The MRP focuses on bolstering coastal resiliency and climate change preparedness.
Do you have thoughts, ideas, or suggestions related to economic development and sustainability? If so – make your voice heard! Join a town board or commission. Email the town council or other relevant body. Speak out in public comment at open meetings. This is our shared community. Our collective input as to how it evolves over time is critically important.
Katherine K. Anderson, LICSW
Councilor, North Kingstown Town Council