This month’s Fresh Friday featured practitioners from land conservation, public lands, and housing organizations for a discussion that explored tools and strategies that allow communities to move toward “having it all”—conserving land and open space, preserving farms, developing affordable housing, creating green spaces for recreation, and more. About 50 participants joined the Fresh Fridays Zoom session on May 10.

ONE Neighborhood Builders’ Grace Evans Pedanou facilitated the panel, which included:


Existing Tensions

All panelists noted that they have experienced tensions between different land uses.

Essington mentioned that the tenuous balance that often exists between preserving open space and constructing housing is not new.

“I like to call out the example of the creation of the urban parks movement, which was in the mid- to late-19th century, starting from the creation of Central Park,” Essington explained. “Many of you may know that people were displaced in the creation of Central Park, for example, and even here in Providence, where I’m living and working, the donation of land to create what is now Roger Williams Park was at the time a bit controversial in that the city was not so sure they even wanted a park or a parks department.”

Tracy spoke of the tensions he experienced around land use while working as a farmer.

“When I was an independent farmer and my partner and I were purely trying to run an urban farm which grew through some success into Perry Urban Farm,” Tracy said. “At every step of the way, we really did have to tango with developers and landowners who always had an opinion about how the land should be used, why it shouldn’t be in farming, why farming and food production is a thing of the past, and the future is something else.”


Opportunities for Collaboration

Sayles validated the struggles of balancing different land uses, but she encouraged groups with different land use interests to consider what they have in common.

“I think that it’s so much easier to think about what our differences are than what our similarities are and try to figure out how to work together and meet in the middle, just as a whole.” Sayles stated.

“I feel like if we baseline all of this with just the understanding that we all believe that Rhode Islanders deserve a safe, healthy, affordable place to live with access to clean air, clean water, outdoor recreation, and local healthy food, if we start from that point and we try to figure out ways where we can work together, past the tensions, we are in a way better place,” Sayles said.

The panel also highlighted several examples of collaboration between land conservation and housing development, including in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

Belden mentioned Church Community Housing Corporation uses a community land trust or land bank model to create more affordable homeownership opportunities for families earning lower incomes. A community land trust or land bank model can take various forms, but for Church Community Housing, the organization keeps ownership of the land to lower the for-sale purchase price and keep the home affordable for 99 years.

“If you buy a home from us, we sell you just the home, and we retain ownership of the land and provide you with a 99-year ground lease for $30 a month. This is the main factor in making homeownership affordable and is a program where we’re really turning renters into homeowners,” said Belden.

Church Community Housing has collaborated with and continues to explore partnerships with various land trusts on Aquidneck Island to conserve land around the affordable housing that Church Community Housing develops.

Land trusts, according to Sayles, are municipal or non-profit organizations that own land and work with landowners to conserve and protect open spaces, forests, farms, and natural areas for public and ecological benefits. Sayles noted that there are over 50 land trusts in Rhode Island, 18 of which are municipal land trusts. Municipal land trusts work in collaboration with the city or town on conservation projects, while a nonprofit organization can acquire land and plan conservation projects more independently, Sayles explained.

Sayles described a bill (House Bill 7699 / Senate Bill 2638) that the Rhode Island General Assembly is currently considering that would revive the 1990 Rhode Island Housing and Conservation Trust Fund.

The Trust Fund “is modeled after the Vermont law that’s been in place since 1987,” Sayles explained. “What it does is create a board of both affordable housing – tenant advocates and developers – and land conservation – land trusts, farmers, and land use planers – to work together on trying to figure out how to do affordable housing, land conservation, and prioritize projects that do both things, and it came with a pot of funding. The pot exists, but it’s never been funded. The board [of the Trust Fund] exists in state law, but it’s never been appointed.”

HB 7699/SB 2638, which Sayles, along with several other land conservation and housing organizations are trying to pass, would amend the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund Act to appoint and expand the Trust Fund’s board to better reflect Rhode Island’s diversity and affordable housing interests.

The bill is not seeking funding in this legislative session because the organizations did not want state budgetary issues to slow the process.

“We don’t have time to continue to work in silos,” said Sayles.

Essington discussed the Community Preservation Act in Massachusetts, which “has created thousands of affordable homes and conserved hundreds of thousands of acres of all kinds of lands, as well as restore hundreds of historic properties.”

Essington explained that program is very popular and successful. He noted that individual municipalities can vote to opt into the program, decide how to fund it through municipal taxes, and create their own Community Preservation Commission. The Commission would receive state matching funds from deed recording fees, manage the funds, and assign resources to meet the needs of the community, including conservation, housing development, preservation, or a blend of all three.

Tracy noted that he is especially interested in opportunities for collaboration between agriculture projects, like those at Southside Community Land Trust, and affordable housing developments.

“Part of my job, and the folks I work with, is getting people to see that change is happening,” added Tracy. “And it should be encouraged because our projects, our programs, and projects like them can be a really great part of any housing project, whether it’s urban, peri-urban, or rural.”