Friday, March 30, 2007

Planning for the Future

I’m a couple days behind and there are so many things to talk about…

On Wednesday night, the Tiverton Land Trust presented a public forum entitled “Planning Tiverton’s Future. About 120 residents gathered at St. Theresa’s Church to learn about future planning activities both at the state and local levels. Many thanks to the TLT for once again bringing the town together on such an important topic. The event happened on the heels of an announcement that the Tiverton Land Trust was recently awarded $400,000 as part of the state’s outlay of nearly $5.4M in open space grants.

Kevin Flynn, Associate Director at the R.I. Division of Planning kicked off the discussion with an overview of the state’s “Land Use 2025” plan, a robust strategy aimed at directing the future growth and development of the state’s remaining 350,000 undeveloped acres. Bottom line – it’s all about applying smart growth strategies to keep urban areas urban, rural areas rural, and a clear divide between the two. An interesting stat: It took 330 years to develop the first 20% of Rhode Island’s land and only 25 years to develop the next 10%. Mr. Flynn anticipates running out of developable land in RI by 2045-2050.

From there, Chris Spencer, Tiverton’s first full-time planner took the podium to set the stage for what’s to come in Tiverton. (Did you know that Tiverton is one of the last few municipalities within the state to have dedicated planner?) First impressions mean a lot, and Mr. Spencer held his own nicely – even where one audience member barraged him with an onslaught of loosely strung together questions that was akin to a record skipping…

According to Mr. Spencer, Tiverton’s past planning woes are rooted in poorly thought out zoning codes and a general lack of long-term planning. Alas, Tiverton is not unique in this predicament; modern suburban design took shape in the 1950’s and has just spun out of control from there. There’s a huge loss of the walk-able community that is defined by mixed-use buildings and common areas (think parks) in a high-density population area.

The future of Tiverton’s planning appears to lie with two strategies: transect planning and form-based codes. Transect planning is a type of planning model associated with the New Urbanism school of thought. Basically, it slices a community into sections ranging from absolute rural to the urban center and dictates varying degrees of complimentary development within each. All along, there is an intersection with the natural environment and respect for maintaining the sustainability of it.

Form-based codes are a shift from traditional zoning codes that focus more on building design and aesthetics rather than strict land use. Mr. Spencer used a variety of diagrams and illustrations to help us non-planner-types understand it all.

Bottom line, as Mr. Spencer put it, we need to focus of defining more of what we DO want and less of what we DON’T want when it comes to development. He sees these two strategies playing out primarily in 4-5 existing areas within town, namely along Main Road (Four Corners, Bliss Four Corners, North Tiverton, etc.). I had one question for him that I was unable to ask because of the swarming crowd around him at the end:

What are the next steps to making this all happen?

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