Climate Change with Bob Rulli
This week is a special episode because we interviewed Bob Rulli! How much do you really pay attention to climate change? climate change is not a pie in the sky concept anymore, it’s a real problem. Today’s guest Bob Rulli is here to educate us about climate change and what we should look for to have a better understanding of it.
The Department of Planning and Community Development coordinates with Town Departments, property owners and the public to define planning/community problems, resolve conflicts and craft ways to achieve common Town goals.
Bob’s contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org, 401-289-0529 Market on Metacom project: https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/6243398bbb804cc794fbdfbf2e5a71c0/page/Home/
Episode 42 -Transcript
CLARICE: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this week’s episode of Environmentally Speaking.
MARISA: Hey, guys. I’m Marisa Desautel an environmental attorney.
CLARICE: And I’m Clarice. I’m coming in with our questions, topics, and things to discuss. And this week, like we promised last week, we have a very special guest. We have Bob Rulli the town planner of Warren. Thanks for coming in, Bob.
BOB: Thanks for having me.
MARISA: Hi, Bob. Like I was telling you before we started recording, the reason that we were so excited to have you come on here is one of our past guests Alisa Richardson who’s a stormwater engineer said that you’re the guy as far as climate change and municipal planning is concerned. And following up on the materials that you sent us in advance of the episode, I’m in the industry. I had no idea this was going on, so I think it’s so important for the information to get out there so people understand that climate change is not a pie in the sky concept anymore. What can you tell us about it?
BOB: Yeah. I mean, I often say that one of the hardest things talking about climate change and sea level rise is just how do you do the messaging. You know, how do you not scare people. And there are lots of doubters out there. And we’ve done numerous public presentations and I think some second or third slide in our deck is like all the sources that we’ve gotten data from just to validate the science because there are people that still don’t believe it’s a real thing. And I think one of my largest frustrations is just the lack of involvement from elected officials at the local and state level on issues like this. The federal delegation has been very supportive of our efforts. Market to Metacom was initially funded by a grant that we got through EPA that Senator Reed. But, as you know, Senator Whitehouse is a very large champion of environmental issues.
CLARICE: So, I mean, he’s been a constant supporter. But, I mean, these are, you know, the kinds of things that you can’t plan for it to happen tomorrow. There’s a lot of moving pieces to it. I try to not think like a normal government person that, you know, tends to be looking in straight lines. I like to say that I’m all about connecting dots and, you know, to the side, to the front, to the back. I work both in the public sector and in the private sector, so I kind of take a different approach to how I treat my job. I tell people I keep my sanity because I’m only a planner 50 percent of the time and then I’m an economic development guy the other 50 percent, so it kind of balances me out.
But and I’m fortunate that, you know, I work in a town that allowed me to kind of break some eggs with what we’re doing with this plan. And I think one of the things that’s attractive about it is there’s many pieces to it. It’s climate change. It’s sea level rise. It’s economic revitalization. It’s creating workforce housing. There’s environmental improvements with respect to stormwater management [inaudible]. I mean, it’s got a lot of moving pieces to it, but I think it’s also parts of it or all of it can be replicated not just within Rhode Island but in other parts of the country. But, again, getting people to focus on it, it’s difficult. We see what the impacts of a hurricane or a tornado or a wildfire are, but when we’re talking about three inches of sea level rise over X period of years it’s hard for people to visualize that. They know what the immediate effects are after a significant precipitation event, but then two weeks later, that’s not going to happen again, until it does, so.
[0:04:00] CLARICE: I’m going to jump in real quick. I know we’re talking about this issue in this situation. Let’s pull back a little bit. What’s going on? Let’s start right at the beginning and lay some foundation here.
BOB: Yeah. So, I mean, in Warren our average elevation is seven feet and if we look at the [inaudible] predictions and FEMA predictions by 2100 Warren is forecasted to have nine feet sea level rise, so we’re two feet under water by that. By 2035 we know that there are areas of town that roads will be flooded on a daily basis. When that starts to happen, then we start to see repetitive property loss in residential housing. When that becoming too chronic of a problem, then we either lose those homes or are not able to finance them or get insurance for them.
So we’ve purposely, in the Market to Metacom, set kind of four milestones, 2035 because people can imagine they still might be here in 2035, what the impact that’s going to be, and 2050, 2075, and 2100. And it’s scary, but, again, I think a lot of people are deniers and, you know, they don’t want to believe that’s going to happen. I can’t say with certainty this is going to happen in 2035 because it could happen in 2030, too. We’ve seen the frequency of really incredible precipitation events on a more regular basis now. So, I mean, it’s a real problem, but, you know, in government no decision is made quickly.
And I think a lot of what we’re trying to do now is educate people as best we can. I just recently came aware of that maybe messaging to younger people is better than trying to message to their parents. I did a program out in Mt. Hope High School and the students were really engaged, asked questions like, how come they don’t teach this in school. And, you know, I know where that street is. You know, my grandmother lives there.
BOB: So that was refreshing, but. And there are people that really do believe it’s going to happen but, you know, just hope that it’s not while they’re there.
MARISA: So you’d mentioned a phrase a couple of times, Market to Metacom. For those folks that are not familiar with the town of Warren in Rhode Island, could you explain what that is?
BOB: Sure. Yeah. So Market to Metacom is – they call it climate response economic development initiative. Market Street is an area of town. People know where Jamiel’s Park is and Belcher Cove. Market Street runs along there, very, very low lying, very vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. And we know that we need to do something there, so what is that something, I mean, possibly property buyouts, possibly abandoning the road and utilities and letting that area become what it wants to be, a wetland, and create a buffer for other areas of town that potentially could be flooded. Metacom is 136 corridor where it’s a lot of one-story park in the front buildings. You got Ocean State Job Lot which is on eight acres of hard impervious surface area. I say that it represents the very best of 1950s, 1960s planning. That’s not a compliment.
[0:07:33] MARISA: No.
BOB: But so it has a lot of opportunity for redevelopment. It’s a major commuting corridor to Aquidneck Island, so that part of it is really an economic development, create transit orientated development, create more housing, affordable housing, mixed income housing and you really just change what that landscape is and you really kind of make that a smart growth model. That Metacom piece could stand on its own as an initiative. Politically I link them together because we knew that if we are going to do property buyouts that people are going to be displaced.
And oftentimes when people do property buyouts, when communities do this, they’re not thinking about, okay, where are these people going to go. We want to create an opportunity for these residents to stay within Warren. Market Street is in a low moderate income census track, so there’s some social justice issues here, as well. Almost half the homes in the area are not owner occupied, a lot of multi-family homes. Historically these were mill houses or mill homes.
We have three – turn of the last century, three major mills in Warren. People are familiar with American Tourister and we have Cutler Mill and Parker Mills. So this area was central to all of those mills and people could walk to, you know, any of them. So, you know, we have a fear that a lot of residents that live there now are not getting the message in terms of public meetings and public awareness we’re doing because those notices are going to the property owner and he doesn’t probably want to scare off his tenants from leaving.
MARISA: Right. Right.
BOB: So, I mean, we’re trying to take a very comprehensive look at what do we do. We’re engaged in a pilot program with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation on road adaptation. Market Street is identified to be one of the top three most vulnerable to sea level rise in the state, yet the state doesn’t have any kind of plan for road adaptation. There are very few in the country. So I was pursuing some federal money to look at that and then DOT stepped in with some money that they had, so we’re looking at that.
And then we have inland wetland area in that area, as well, so we secured some funding through the USDA through the National Conservation Resource Services to look at that because what we have in that Market Street [inaudible] area the convergence of seawater and freshwater. So looking to how we can mitigate that and displace the fewest number of people but we know that there’s definitely going to be a need to relocate a percentage of the population in that area and remove as much hard surface as we can. So that’s a long answer to your short question.
[0:10:23] MARISA: Go ahead, Clarice. I have a question, but [inaudible].
CLARICE: I was going to say it sounds like there are so many – I mean, obviously this isn’t just one flat simple problem. This is so many different elements and so many different sides to consider as you’re planning. How did you, and I imagine the rest of your team, begin to tackle this, begin to brainstorm? How did that process even start?
MARISA: Did you just say caffeine?
CLARICE: Lots of coffee.
BOB: So I’m actually an office of one person. I don’t have any staff. We did work with a colleague of mine Arnold Robinson from Fuss & O’Neil. We brought them on. But, I mean, the genesis for the Market Street portion of this was I participated in an open studio about four years ago with some students from the University of Pennsylvania school of architecture that the Van Buren charitable trust had funded and allowed them to come up here. And we were walking in the Market Street area with the students and they remarked about how – it was kind of moon tide – how high the water was and what was going to happen to all these houses in this area which kind of got me thinking, you know, that’s a good question and, you know, that we need to do something.
And then, you know, I’ve always just been appalled by what 136 looks like and the opportunity to like how can we reimagine that. And I just had the crazy idea that, okay, let’s throw some spaghetti against the wall, put in a grant request to look at tying these two things together and see what happens. And the EPA program we got the money through is through the [inaudible] New England estuary protection program, probably the least likely agency that I thought would ever fund something like this. But what they liked about it was that it could be replicated in other areas and that we were – you know, the thinking we brought into it was like, as you mentioned, touching so many different things.
I mean, I always describe it as if I’m looking at one part of the plan that’s one tile, but if I pull back that whole mosaic takes on a whole different view. And that’s what I meant earlier is that you can’t just look at, okay, I’m going to attack housing and then I’m going to attack transportation. I mean, how do you link all those things together. And, you know, I’ve had an opportunity to speak to almost every elected official at the state level about this and sometimes they get it. Sometimes they don’t. And I think a lot of that is because of the kind of narrow focused thinking.
I won’t mention names, but somebody running for higher office in the state had on their website a reference on climate change to Warren and I said, they’ve never been to Warren. We’ve never talked. And I got in touch with the campaign head. I said, I kind of feel like you have my picture on your Tinder profile because you’re talking about Warren and we never talked. And so fast forward about a month later, that candidate came in and got, not a TED talk but a Bob talk on, you know, here’s how you really do climate change and here’s how you really do address affordable housing. So I’ve had opportunities to speak to other – I mean, we presented to the EC4 last week. You know, I’m on the [inaudible].
[0:14:07] MARISA: Bob, what’s the EC4 for folks that are not familiar with that acronym?
BOB: That is the Executive Coordinating Council for Climate Change.
MARISA: And what does that body do?
BOB: Governor Raimondo started that about four or five years ago. It brings together, you know, basically cabinet level leaders from across the state to talk about, you know, what are we doing with respect to climate change, you know, not just sea level rise but renewable energy, so something from public utilities is on there. Department of Health is represented and CRMC. They meet quarterly. I don’t know that they promulgate any laws, but, I mean, at least it’s having a conversation and hopefully those conversations are going back to the agencies that they represent. I presented to the State Planning Council. You know, and, again, everyone is like, that’s amazing. Are other people talking to you. I’m like, no. No one else is talking to me.
MARISA: Oh, my God.
BOB: And I think, you know, it’s maybe lack of courage to take it on. But, you know, again, I’m not just dealing with climate change. I’m trying to address a housing issue, too, that’s a statewide problem and when I have briefed elected officials – we’re changing the zoning on Metacom, so we’re creating higher density [inaudible] we should, but that creates more value for the property owners, right. So, you know, I’m trying to explain to elected officials that I can build 600 units of affordable housing without using any of your money because I’m creating more density, therefore, I’m creating more value for the property owner.
We’re adopting a form-based code which is a very predictable development scheme where if a developer comes in, he checks all the boxes and here’s where we want buildings located. Here’s the design we want. Use these materials, so on and so forth. If you want to have a renewable energy, then it’s an extradited approval process. I mean, I did something similar to this 20 years ago in Arlington, Virginia on the Columbia Pike corridor. They’re getting major projects approved in less than a year. So for a large development, that’s pretty significant for a developer, so we’re creating those incentives. But, you know, again, I lose people halfway through this conversation because you can’t do all of that. I’m like, yeah, but we are.
MARISA: It’s already happening.
BOB: Yeah. It could happen.
MARISA: So that’s a ton of information. It’s overwhelming for sure. I’m assuming that’s why you lose some folks halfway through because it’s almost too much to process. But I’m saying all the time on this podcast – I don’t know if anyone’s listening, but I’m saying all the time that we have kicked the can down the road for so long and for so far that I think we’re going to start seeing more instances of extreme conditions like what Warren is looking at, so I’m not surprised to hear what you’re saying. What surprises me, though, is the lack of engagement from everybody. Maybe it’s just folks are —they get overwhelmed or they need to deny it. I’m not sure. But how do you see this playing out? Do you think folks are just going to ignore it until they have to move out of their house, or do you have some other thought?
[0:17:47] BOB: Yeah. I think there will always be those people that will never believe it until it happens. Warren participated this spring in a program called Envision Resilience Narragansett Bay Challenge that was modeled after a program done last year in Nantucket. It was funded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt Family Foundation. They worked in six communities in Rhode Island bringing together six universities looking at climate change and sea level rise.
So Warren was one of those communities and so I had students from RISD School of Architecture, Syracuse University School of Architecture, Roger Williams Law School looking at buyouts, University of Rhode Island all working in Warren and then University of Florida film students. And it was interesting because their work product was on display at the WaterFire Arts Center in June and I think that was another way to communicate to people. I mean, this is coming from college students that don’t even live in this area in terms of how they presented the issue —
BOB: — what they showed in terms of innovative ideas for areas that there is retreat. And so that was one way to engage people. As I said before, I mean, I think having conversations with high school students is probably another way to communicate. We do a lot of public art in Warren. We work with The Avenue Concept. We’ve had nine electric boxes that are painted. We’re about to have a mural on a storefront painted that’s going to have a climate change focus. So I think, you know, using art as kind of a messaging tool to educate people is something that, you know, we’re looking at and just not getting frustrated trying to have conversations with the public. I’m not trying to make them drink through a fire hose with information.
BOB: You know, try to set the table with information that’s useful. But, again, the problem is, you know, if you try to animate what this looks like then it really does look like a comic. I don’t think people can get their arms around it. So it’s three inches of water. What does that mean. Well, you add in storm surge and wave action and it’s suddenly more than that.
MARISA: Yeah. Are there any – sorry to cut you off but before I forget are there any renderings or photos or video that folks can look at to get a sense of what this is actually going to look like?
[0:20:23] BOB: Yeah. I mean, if you Google Market to Metacom it will bring up a number of different links, but they all link back to a website that we’ve set up for this initiative, so it’s got tapes of every public meeting we’ve done. It’s got our final report [inaudible]. We keep adding information to it, but if somebody went through the slide decks of the presentations, you know, you’re basically – you know, we can look at Market Street area and what it looked like 100 years ago. In the 1930s you can see how much of the shoreline has been lost over that period of time.
We have photos in there that were taken last fall by a drone on a king tide and it looks like people have an infinity pool in their backyard. I mean, you can really see how close the water is to the house. But there’s also – you know, National Grid or Rhode Island Energy now has assets that are in the flood zone. I mean, there’s one picture where you can see the water right up against an electrical substation. So I think it’s not just the loss of property. Two of our three evacuation routes go through this area. That’s a concern. The shelter is on the other side of, you know, where the flooding is, so that’s not good.
But, you know, again, we worry about, you know, water inundation underneath the roads because of the infrastructure that’s there. I don’t know what inventory Rhode Island Energy has on underground. They don’t share that information readily. So there’s a lot of moving pieces to it. I have concern if there’s property that is damaged and the property owner just walks away from it, so there’s environmental issues there. What’s in that basement.
MARISA: Yeah. Yeah.
BOB: Who’s going to take the house down.
MARISA: Are there any commercial properties located within the zones that you’re concerned with?
BOB: Yeah, there is. I mean, there’s one picture in there – I call it my Where’s Waldo picture. It’s at the intersection of Redmond and Market Street. I always challenge people. I say, what’s wrong with this picture. And they’re like, well, the truck is driving through the flooded water. Well, yeah, that’s part of it, but there’s a dry cleaner, an auto body shop [inaudible]. You can see all those signs. Like so those all have funky things in the basement and now if they flood then that water is – you know, so you really should be concerned about that. And, you know, I think some of the property owners in that area are starting to get it.
A few years ago Sofie Rudin who was the environmental reporter for Rhode Island Public Radio – she’s since left to go to law school, but she did a story and she talked to the guy that leases the auto body shop. You know, my father was here and I’ve been here and I’m never leaving. And then last fall Alex Kuffner from Providence Journal did some stories and the day we were there it was just after a king tide and there were actually fish on the sidewalk.
[0:23:20] MARISA: Oh, my God.
BOB: And we talked to the auto body shop guy and he’s like, you know what, I have water in the building for like the first time. And now he’s like, maybe I do have to move. So, you know, it’s unfortunate you have to like have that happen –
MARISA: Right. Yeah.
BOB: — to get to that point. But, you know, and I’ve had realtors like come with pitchforks and it’s like, you’re ruining our business because you’re devaluing property. Like that’s not true at all. Something really interesting that happened after Alex’s, you know, article ran in October was that people call like, you know, this is horrible. Like it really occurred to me that none of these people had refinanced any time recently because the flood insurance premiums would – so what we know down in the Market Street area is there’s a lot of intergenerational housing that probably doesn’t have a lot of debt on it because anybody there would have been seeing ridiculous flood insurance premiums.
MARISA: If they could get coverage at all.
BOB: If they could get it at all.
CLARICE: That’s a good point.
MARISA: So, Bob, could you give us the specifics on the website that you referenced in case our listeners want to go on and take a look at the material you’ve put up?
BOB: Give you the address?
MARISA: Yes. If you have it.
BOB: Yeah. I mean, it’s a weird link address, so it’s easier just to Google [inaudible].
CLARICE: I’ll be sure to include it in the show notes, as well.
MARISA: Okay. But to just Google Market to Metacom.
BOB: Market to Metacom.
MARISA: Okay. Okay.
BOB: Senator Whitehouse every year has an energy environment and oceans conference that he does online.
BOB: And I had a chance to present to that audience in December and that was great because you had people from all over the country that are in this area in this space. And this is forward thinking. This is unbelievable. No one else is doing this. And then you come back to Warren and, oh, you’re that guy. You’re the guy that ruined my property value.
MARISA: Oh, yeah. It’s your fault. Geez. You did this, Bob.
BOB: I just spoke right after John Kerry, but, you know, that’s okay.
MARISA: So if people have questions – and I’m sure they will – sometimes they write in to us or on social media they’ll ask a question and follow up, so it could be that you might hear from us in the future just, you know, if anyone has a follow-up question. But are you also entertaining questions and conversations from the public and media and the people of Rhode Island, or would you prefer that they not contact you?
BOB: No. I mean, I think, you know, again, the problem is not unique to Warren. I get criticized a lot because I’m not from Rhode Island originally and I’ve worked in government in other areas, so I’m a huge proponent of regionalism which is like profanity in Rhode Island.
[0:26:21] MARISA: It is. How dare you.
BOB: Sea level rise and climate change doesn’t know where the town line is, right.
BOB: We have to kind of collectively talk about these issues. Lieutenant governor — it was a Power of Place Summit that Grow Smart Rhode Island put on last week and I had briefed her on our affordable housing piece back, I don’t know, last December and she was going on a panel discussion before the breakout sessions last week in Providence and she didn’t know why I was there. And they asked on the housing piece, you know, so what can communities be doing to, you know, get housing built. You should talk to Warren. You know, they’ve got this amazing plan. I mean, just the way that he’s speaking about it and how he’s addressing it. You know, I don’t know why other communities aren’t down there talking. And my phone still has not rung.
BOB: I mean, I will talk to anybody about it because we need to talk about it.
MARISA: So where can people reach you, Bob? What’s a good number?
BOB: My e-mail is BRulli@TownOfWarren – all one word – hyphen, RI.Gov. My office number is 401-289-0529, or they can catch me on LinkedIn.
MARISA: Okay. Great.
CLARICE: And now one last question. I don’t know if you’ve listened to the podcast before. If you haven’t I won’t put you on the spot, but I do try to find some small piece of good news. Is there any good news? Is there any hopeful message or some positive call to action we can kind of end this on? Marisa likes to end things real dark and I’m fighting her yet again.
BOB: Yeah. No. I mean, I think if you look at the Metacom portion of this and, you know, for a town of 10,000 plus residents the opportunity to create 600 units of mixed income housing, I mean, that’s huge. That’s good. The fact that if we have to displace people that we can offer them the opportunity to stay in Warren, have access to transportation, maybe live in better housing than they’re in now that’s affordable, that’s good. If we’re able to recognize that there are parts of town that we have to sacrifice for the greater good and we can do that in a smart way that’s environmentally smart that maybe creates more recreation opportunities, that’s good.
So this is not a negative plan. This is a reality plan and a future thinking plan. But, again, not every element could be replicated in Rhode Island, but a lot of areas it could. I mean, particularly, you know, I look at the Route 2 corridor or Route 4 or Route 1. There’s huge opportunities to do something better than what’s being done there, has access to transportation, has access to infrastructure. You know, it’s forcing us to do a capacity study now. I mean, if we build 600 units of housing what’s that mean for the sanitary sewer system.
But the flip side of that is you get out of the box thinkers. Like the RISD students are looking, okay, you know, there’s things you can do within the project area in terms of sanitary sewer and package plans and things of that nature. So the more education you have and the more positive conversations you can have with people, the better we’re all going to be and not have the conversation like it’s doom and gloom. I mean, this is an opportunity. I put it in slides because I know a lot of elected officials don’t like to talk about it. I have a slide. Okay. For no other reason if you ignore this this is how much revenue we’re going to lose. This is property tax revenue we’re going to lose. This is business revenue we’re going to lose if we do nothing. So I don’t think anybody wants to own that.
[0:30:31] MARISA: Yeah. Yeah.
CLARICE: So for once I get to end it on a positive note.
MARISA: I’m not saying anything.
CLARICE: Well, thank you, Bob. I appreciate you taking some time to chat with us about something so, so important, not just for Warren but it sheds a ton of light on the bigger picture of what’s happening with our coastlines and our neighborhoods.
BOB: Yeah. And, again, I mean, with all sincerity, I mean, I’m happy to talk to anybody, individuals, groups, schools, governments. You know, and I’ve had that opportunity often, but, I mean, I think that the more we’re talking about it and the more that we as a state recognize that it’s not a Warren it’s, it’s a state issue and it’s a –
BOB: — national issue and it’s a —
BOB: — world issue then, you know, we have a better chance of trying to be prepared and solve some of these problems, but I might be tilting at windmills, too.
MARISA: Well, hang in there, Bob. Thanks for all the hard work.
CLARICE: Yeah. Thank you. If anybody has any questions or comments for anything that you’d want us to send Bob’s way, please reach out to us at Help@DesautelESQ.com. You could find us on all social media platforms. And otherwise we hope you guys have a good week.
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