Commentary: Little Compton at tipping point: Loving it to death?

By Peter Aldrich
Posted 12/27/23

Little Compton will finally be my home. It has taken over 50 years for me to achieve that. (That is probably not unusual for a “year-rounder”). But the town I moved to is changing fast; …

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Commentary: Little Compton at tipping point: Loving it to death?


Little Compton will finally be my home. It has taken over 50 years for me to achieve that. (That is probably not unusual for a “year-rounder”). But the town I moved to is changing fast; it has a problem, and I am part of it.

In 1972, Little Compton appeared to me to be a genuine old-fashioned New England community, situated in beautiful, pastoral farmland by the sea. Almost everyone wanted to keep it that way. Sensibly, efforts were expended to preserve the farmlands, woods, beaches, and marshes in perpetuity. Voters approved a transfer fee paid by buyers on real estate sales. The tax funded, and still funds the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust, which is dedicated to the preservation of that beauty by protecting it with easements, and by the creation of inexpensive farmland for lease. Voters also passed a two-acre zoning rule for new houses and established the Farm, Forest, and Open Space tax rates.

Between the far-sighted landowners, the Ag Trust, The Nature Conservancy, the Sakonnet Preservation Association, and other groups, and armed with a two-acre house-lot rule, we in “LC” have protected more than a quarter of our land. That is an amazing accomplishment for a town with a population of only about 3,500 full time people. Still, there is sensitive property that landowners, the Ag Trust, and most of us will want to protect for local farmers, for nature’s ecological balance, and just for its beauty (The Ag Trust itself is also one of our treasures to protect.)

Today we have an additional challenge before us. People who make our community run, our policemen, firefighters, storekeepers, farmers, and tradespeople can no longer afford to purchase a home in Little Compton. Young families and older people are being priced out of the local housing market by affluent and unwitting people like me. Between 2010 and 2020, our population under 18 years old has declined by 40 percent. Little Compton houses over 400 “cost burdened” families who are struggling to hold onto their homes. The enrollment of the Wilbur McMahon school has declined by a third in the same period. Many services in town have closed. Where are the taverns, the stores, and the gasoline pumps? These are the “canaries in the coal mine” telling us that we are in danger of losing the essential social fabric and diversity that has made Little Compton special.

There are many reasons for this. Certainly, Little Compton’s bucolic environment and historic landscape and architecture, and its small-town coastal community “feel” are responsible for attracting affluent people from throughout the east coast and beyond. As the Baby Boomer generation gets older, it is starting to leave cities for less expensive and more habitable smaller communities like ours, whose location makes our town accessible to millions of people searching for primary and second homes. Property values throughout the United States have increased more than the rate of inflation since the Great Financial Crisis in 2008-2010. The Pandemic and the popularity of “Work From Home” have freed many households to leave the shackles of commuting to work or surrendering to expensive urban living. All these factors have had an impact on Little Compton’s property values.

We have reached our tipping point. It is time to renew our collective commitment to preserving the unassuming but proud, the hard-working but relaxed, and the cooperative but fiercely independent Yankee feeling of the Little Compton we know and love. It is time for ALL Little Compton residents, the native, the year-rounder, and the seasonal, to “join hands” to work with our elected officials and community organizations to find solutions to our housing challenges. Why? So that children of families who have been here for generations can afford to live here still, so people who work in town can live in town, and so young families can live in Little Compton and put their children through the Wilbur McMahon school, where are forged many of the strong community bonds we cherish.

There is hope on the horizon. Some years ago, the town created the Little Compton Housing Trust, which is exploring new ground to help provide less expensive housing. The Town Council is considering amending the Accessory Dwelling Unit zoning law, and the State of RI has passed new legislation effective January 1 that will encourage communities to develop housing that their local workforce can afford.

Now, a small, determined number of natives, summer folks, and “year-rounders” are saying to those struggling families, “We hear you!”, and we will do something about it. They have come together to fund attainable community housing for Little Compton. That group calls itself “The Commons Foundation.” Old and new members of the community, most of whom you would know, have joined in this effort. Some have pledged significantly large donations, even before fundraising has begun. Some are generously pledging their time, ingenuity, and imagination.

The Commons Foundation, along with other community groups will participate in an open meeting on Saturday, Jan. at 10 a.m. in the Community Center to discuss housing and how to enable middle class families to purchase here, within the next several years, new attainably priced homes.

Please come to the meeting and consider joining this important effort.

P.S.: What got me started was a wonderful letter, published in the Sakonnet Times dated February 16, 2023, from a very far-sighted Rev. Rebecca Floyd Marshall.

Aldrich lives on Swamp Road in Little Compton.

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