A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 29, 1999
CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240
KEEPING OUR COMMUNITIES SAFE FROM SPRAWL
This past holiday weekend, while celebrating the uniquely American tradition of giving thanks with family and friends, I began reflecting on the things that make not only this country, but this state in which we live, so wonderful. Indeed, in addition to the traditions and qualities that make the U.S. so alluring, Massachusetts has a geography and history like no other. The cities and towns that spot our Commonwealth are rich in tradition, yet fueled with a new spirit leading us towards the future.
While our sister states are unique in their own ways, they can hardly boast of the history we find in our backyards in towns such as Concord or Salem out in Ohio and California. Those states were latecomers to the Union and were settled long after the Puritans and Quakers had laid down their heritage in rustic New England. They organized their communities in different ways, with more emphasis on the county and the state, and thus, towns were of lesser importance.
In this area, however, the town (or village) has been the traditional pattern of community development and has greatly contributed to the region's charm and uniqueness. Massachusetts towns in particular are among the oldest, with many having been established in the early 1600s. Their distinctive character and beauty were enough to captivate the French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville when he toured the nation in the early 1800s. The "township," he wrote admiringly, "seems to come directly from the hand of God...[and] is so constituted as to excite the warmest of human affections...."
The traditional town was built according to a certain format, typically with a town square containing edifices such as the church, town hall, and courthouse, and also vast open spaces or "commons." The square, or "Main Street," was the political and social hub of not only the town, but of people's lives. With a common open space for public gatherings, a central church for worship, a marketplace for trade, and a meeting house for political matters, one could argue that towns were designed with the intention of bringing people together as a community.
In this way, the physical setup of a town contributed to its identity and thus, had a social-psychological effect on the inhabitants. People primarily identified themselves as members of their town, which itself was recognized by the layout of certain structures and spaces which differentiated it from other from all other places. If this setup were more dispersed, there would be no town and people would have to look to the county or state for their political identities. But having a dense "common" area that brought people together and fostered a profound sense of "community" identity and loyalty that is still found on the Main Streets of Massachusetts.
Regrettably, the spirit of community that has been built over so many years is in danger of being destroyed by "sprawl". No, I am not referring to my typical position on the couch after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner, but rather, the unchecked over-development of land.
According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, one-fourth of Massachusetts is almost fully developed, and every day, we lose 44 acres of woods, fields, or farms to residential, commercial, or industrial development. If this development occurs without rational planning, it could end up destroying Massachusetts communities that have maintained their identities since the first Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower.
In the worst case scenario, sprawl completely overtakes open spaces and historic structures of a town, just as crabgrass invades a lawn and replaces the original grass with its parasitic progeny. Although it is possible to kill crabgrass and reseed a lawn, it is not so easy to get rid of developments once they are in place. It would be unrealistic to ask the residents of an apartment building to pack up and leave because people think their building is contributing to the degradation of the community. Therefore, the only rational solution is to stop sprawl before it happens.
Traditionally, cities and towns have been checking sprawl through zoning and conservation measures. Such measures have attempted to protect the integrity of communities from the sometimes overbearing forces of fast food chains, strip malls, and corporate superstores, as well as sporadic business or residential developments.
Today, the state legislature is working on another approach to protecting open space within our communities. The legislation, colloquially known as the Community Preservation Act, H.4866, would allow our cities and towns to preserve "Main Street" and achieve a host of other goals.
Under the House version, municipalities, upon approval of its legislative body and by vote of the town, could elect to establish their own local preservation funds for the purpose of protecting open space, preserving historic resources or developing low or moderate income housing. To achieve these goals, the legislation empowers cities and towns to implement a separate funding mechanism to preserve the special character of the specific community. H.4866 also creates a new fund to be administered by the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs for the purpose of awarding matching grants to participating towns.
According to the legislation, the Community Preservation Fund would be administered by a local body of citizens and be used towards the purchase of open space within the town, the preservation of historic buildings, and the subsidy of low income housing. As it stands, local communities are taking ad hoc measures to accomplish these goals, but with only limited success. The Act, if adopted by the municipal government, would make community preservation one of the full-time responsibilities of the town and not just the subject of zoning and Conservation Commission hearings.
The primary area of contention surrounding the debate involves the appropriate funding mechanism. The House bill takes the approach that spreading the costs across the entire community that votes by referendum to adopt the Act, bolstered by matching state grants, remains the most equitable funding method. Last year, we faced a similar quandary when debating the Cape Cod Land Bank legislation. Looking back, that experience has taught us that a nominal across-the-board surcharge (no more than 3%) on real estate taxes is more acceptable to communities. Moreover, those persons who qualify for exemptions or abatements will not be affected by the charge, and the towns may vote to provide additional exemptions for low income, or low income senior housing.
On the whole, the Community Preservation Act offers intelligent solutions to some of the complicated problems communities face today. Its implementation would be the first step in stopping the erosion of communities that have been around since the first Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower. If we truly desire to keep our towns as they have always been, we must take the necessary steps to push this measure through the legislature. The towns, of course, will be left to decide the specific details of the law, such as funding mechanisms, local priorities, and long term planning. This may require an investment of the time and money of our citizens, but if doing so helps them to preserve their communities for themselves and their posterity, it is an investment that will pay off for many years to come.