The Block Island Times

Of populations and demographics

A look at island numbers
By Joel Taylor | Mar 07, 2014

Members of the Block Island Planning Board sat down at Town Hall on Monday, March 3, to discuss an update to their section of the town’s Comprehensive Plan with Town Planner Jane Weidman. Weidman submitted a draft of the Comprehensive Plan to the Board for their review.

The discussion at first concerned population and demographics on Block Island and possible trends, but the statistics that have been generated so far were deemed insufficient for serious consideration. However, Weidman had included island population numbers from 1910 to 2010 in the draft. The numbers showed a decrease in population during the Great Depression and the Second World War, while the smallest count on Block Island was 486 in 1960. The island population has been steadily increasing since then, but still isn’t as high as the early 1900s. As Weidman assessed, this is probably due to the island having to adjust its economic focus to tourism. “The economy was largely based on agriculture and shipping in the past,” she said.

Also in the document were projections from the Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program, which projected Block Island’s population to continue to grow by about five residents per year, reaching almost 1,400 by 2040. Planning Board member Dennis Heinz disagreed with those estimates, citing the decreasing population of Rhode Island as a whole. “Schools are closing in South Kingston and Warwick, and these are towns you wouldn’t expect,” Heinz said.

“Regardless, these are the numbers we currently have to work with,” Weidman said.
Weidman also included age demographics in her submission to the Board. According to the 2010 Census, 622 of the Block Island’s 1,051 residents were between the ages of 35 and 64 at the time. General consensus among the board members was that young people are not coming to Block Island, and the population is only getting older. “For sure, 55 percent of our residents are over 50,” member Sam Bird said.

The board had some apprehension about discussing trends any further using the available data. Vice Chair Sven Risom, who was chairing the meeting, said they needed more updated numbers. “These numbers are static. We need to find trends, particularly regarding age,” Risom said. Elaborating on the importance of trends in age, Risom said “a lot hinges on that: senior programs, housing programs, school programs, and so on.”

Board member Socha Cohen added, “It’s a wonderful study that, if done in detail, could have some serious implications.

The Planning Board reviewed every portion of the draft, which included land use and growth management, goals and objectives for such, and zoning issues. The Board was satisfied with the current state of zoning affairs on Block Island. The continued management of growth is their main concern.

Weidman asked the Board, regarding land land preservation, “What is the relevance of the 50 percent number? It seems arbitrary.” Land preservationists often cite “50 percent” as the goal for how much of the island should be set aside. Heinz said the number originated from the land preservation push of the 1970s. “I think the number was based on the goals that Nantucket had at the time. They were the precedent. I believe they’ve since achieved that goal,” he said.
First, Cohen said of the land preservation goal, “I hope it doesn’t increase from 50 percent, because we are failing to manage those protected areas adequately is it is.”

Board member Mary Anderson pointed out the historic value of Block Island’s land preservation goal. Anderson believed “the 50 percent number is important historically as a goal we set. If that number disappears from what we print, where would else would it be found?” Both Anderson and Risom both want to add a history of conservation, as well as the planning and preservation of the Historic District, to the Comprehensive Plan. “It would give some perspective,” Cohen agreed.

As the discussion focused more on future development, Risom expressed some concerns about congestion and how to better share the use of such utilities as water, septic and power. He said he’d like to see even high-density developments have a lower impact in the future. “That’s something to be put in our preamble,” Cohen said.
“That should be brought up at a Housing Board meeting. What’s more relevant is uses of space, runoff, sustainability, and things like that,” echoed Weidman.

Cohen, Heinz and Anderson all thought possible water level changes and beach access should be addressed in the Comprehensive Plan. Additionally, Risom said he “questions whether or not the power grid and internet will be adequate in the future. We should find a way to include that in our Comprehensive Plan Update, and it should be included with the general utilities.”

The Board also discussed future management of beach access, with possibly more handicapped access. On that note, the Planning Board ended the meeting with much work to be done, but with a good sense of direction for 2014.

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