Wary of Political Knock-Downs with Tiverton Glen

As a general proposition, development of the land on the northern side of Route 24 in Tiverton is a good idea.  Whether the Tiverton Glen project is the right fit is another question; the process has certainly dipped into the range at which residents are justified for being suspicious.  That said, one consideration hasn’t been getting much play in the public debate, and it’s worth considering.

Not that long ago, a different developer wanted to put a smaller project on the same land.  In a rapid move that some still claim to have skirted the legal processes, activists in town — some of them now advocating against Tiverton Glen — changed the zoning to prevent it.

Based on information from the town’s online property viewer, the unoccupied land between Main and Fish, Souza and 24, is assessed at over $1 million.  At the current tax rate of $19.14, that’s over $20,000 per year in taxes that somebody is paying for the privilege of having land for sale in Tiverton.  It would be understandable if part of what made the Carpionato Group’s proposal attractive to the property owners was that it might be big enough — and the company might be powerful enough — to overcome political obstacles in town.

We’ll see whether that proves to be the case, but the important point to consider is that defeating the Tiverton Glen project does not take the land off the market.  It just changes the calculations of the sellers and potential buyers.  Somewhere along the curve of the town’s willingness to let development happen on that land is an intersection with the political power of people willing to develop it.

That reality worries me, in particular, because I read a great deal of the legislation that our representatives and senators consider making into laws each year.  One bill that didn’t quite make it this year, sponsored by the chairman of the House Finance Committee, Raymond Gallison (D, Bristol, Portsmouth), was H6107.  If passed, the bill would change a law that gives a special cut-rate tax deal for renovated properties converted for use as affordable housing so that new construction could get the deal.

Basically, rather than paying normal property taxes, owners of affordable housing units would pay 8% of their scheduled rent.  For some perspective, the tax bill for a $175,000 house rented for $1,200 a month would drop from $3,350 to $1,152.  A large development catering to lower incomes could see an even more dramatic drop, and one could reasonably wager that it would use a disproportionate amount of town services, like police, fire, and education.

With the state’s drive for affordable housing only picking up speed, it’s easy to imagine some developer eyeing the land along Souza Rd. for that purpose.  Putting affordable housing in good locations is becoming an attractive option thanks to government incentives and the prospect of finishing off a 30-year agreement with land that could be easily converted for higher resale.  (That makes for a steady, reliable investment option.)

Moreover, the state — it hardly needs to be said — is a very powerful political player.

None of this means that the Tiverton Glen project is a good one for the town or that those who oppose it should back down out of fear that it might be a better deal than whatever comes down the road next.  However, the arguments are getting heated and confrontational.  If our development battles become too much a matter of us-versus-them, rather than trying to figure out how everybody’s rights and interests can be worked out, we may not like it when somebody manages to be more powerful.

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Justin KatzJustin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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