DEM talks about Question 6
Voters can reject, approve $20M environmental bond
Rhode Island has lost 80 percent of its farm acreage to development, but since 1985, the state has taken steps to protect the remaining farm and forestry land, according to Scott Millar of the state Department on Environmental Management.
Millar and two other DEM offi- cials – Lisa Primiano, deputy chief of the State Land Conservation and Acquisition Program, and Ken Ayars, chief of the Division of Agriculture – spoke at the Jamestown Philomenian Library on Oct. 25 in advance of the Nov. 6 ballot question authorizing $20 million for an environmental management bond.
“We have had pretty good success,” Primiano said, estimating 22 percent of the state’s land is now protected through conservation easements or acquisitions. The next goal is to target 44,000 additional acres and bring the total protected land to 28 percent.
Ayars said Jamestown has done a “great job” protecting farms. He especially enjoys the farm and farmers market signs along North Road. “The signs are quaint and build the local food system,” he said.
Primiano, a Jamestown resident, said she does not officially lobby for bond questions, but explained how the money on Question 6 would go to continue the work of protecting farm and forest lands. It would also help expand recreation and preserve public access to natural resources. Rhode Island started issuing open-space bonds in 1985, and to date there have been 11 bonds.
In that period, 96 farms (measuring “just under 7,000 acres”) have been preserved, she said. In addition, the state has acquired more than 20,000 acres of open space, worth $127 million, and more than half of that tally was bond funded.
Primiano, who said she started her career as the Jamestown town planner, indicated the trend in recreation projects has changed. Fewer ballparks and basketball courts are being created, she said, and more money is being used for hiking trails and other types of passive recreation. However, the boulder project at Lawn Avenue School was funded through the DEM’s recreation grants, and the bond directs about $1 million toward the creation of “pocket parks” through the historic park development program.
The bond money would also send $2.5 million for the local land acquisition matching grants program. This money goes to cities and towns, land trusts and nonprofi t organizations to create open space. Currently, the program has enough funds for “maybe one more grant round,” she estimated, and there is no money left after that.
Another $3 million of the bond money would go for storm-water management in the Narragansett Bay watershed, she said. Approximately $1 million would be directed to rebuilding fish ladders in the Blackstone River and other projects aimed at protecting buffer zones, restoring eco-resources and cleaning up pollution.
Also important, the farmland development program would gain $4.5 million to protect active farms by paying farmers for agricultural development rights.
Ayars said at one time 60 to 70 percent of all the land in Rhode Island was farms, but in the last 25 years, nearly 30 percent of state farmland was “converted” for development. Rhode Island leads the country in the percentage of “prime” farmland lost to housing and other development, and ranks second in the percentage of all types of farmland converted in the last 25 years. He estimated the state manages to protect between three and five farms annually.
Rhode Island currently boasts 1,200 farms scattered across the state, Millar said. They provide local food production, unique habitat, recreation opportunities and community character, he said, and 2,300 residents make a living from these farms. However, Millar said 6.7 percent of the farmland is not protected. Among the threats to farmland, he listed “high land values, aging land owners, lost infrastructure support, and regulations that prevent adaptation,” includ- ing local rules that prevent farmers from using part of the land for business.
According to Millar, it’s no surprise given the rise in housing prices since the 1950s that Rhode Island has lost 80 percent of its farms.
And forestland is also important. Millar said 53 percent of the state is forested and 80 percent of that is “carved into 10 acres or less.” Forestland has a lot of conservation values, including protecting habitat, he said. These lands also have economic value since forestry accounts for 2,000 jobs (mostly in the secondary wood products and paper sectors), and supports 156 companies with payrolls over $100 million.
Most of the farm product in Rhode Island is connected to the green industry, Ayars said, meaning sod, nurseries, and ornamentals and landscaping.
Ayars said the number of farms in Rhode Island is growing, but most of the growth is being seen in small farms of five, 10 or 15 acres. He estimated the increase in small farms at 47 percent. Ayers said there is also an increase in the number of young people going into farming. An important goal, he said, will be to connect the protected farmland to young farmers who cannot afford to buy their own farms.