Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?
These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.
Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...
...seems to be working so far
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Smart Growth in Sturbridge
Where Is “Smart Growth” in Sturbridge?
There has been a lot said and written about the Sturbridge sewer expansion project, by members of the business community, various boards and committees, and residents as well, as to how Selectmen have “ignored the experts”.
How about we step back and look at both sides? First the “experts”: the experts are the engineering firm of Tighe & Bond, who were hired by the town to design a sewer plant that will increase and handle sewer capacity and flows. Rumor has it the “experts” have recommended a 1.25 mgd plant. The “experts” have indeed done their jobs within that scope of their engineering professionalism – but that’s as far as their expertise goes; that’s all they’re being paid to do and it’s only one part of many parts that make up a “community”.
Now, the Selectmen as sewer commissioners of Sturbridge, have read the expert’s reports and recommendations for that 1.25 mgd plant, and have made their own recommendation to residents for a 1 mgd plant. The “expert” engineers have not considered the long term tax burdens to residents by such an expansion, nor have they considered looming property tax increases due to the Burgess School expansion, or the town hall/center school renovations. The “experts” have not considered Smart Growth techniques – that is not their job and it is not within the scope of their contract with the town. Also, the experts have not considered the current economy.
It is within the scope of Selectmen’s responsibilities to look at all sides of an issue, and all aspects of the town before making decisions. They are representing and working for the residents, the “experts” are not. Selectmen had better be cautious while spending taxpayer money. They must consider all issues and how each decision they make now, will impact the town and its residents now and in the future. They use the Master Plan & Dialogue of the Future to guide their decisions. The “experts” Tighe & Bond, do not use these guiding documents.
What about the “experts” who know about Smart Growth techniques? Why didn’t that entered into the picture years ago? Why haven’t the Zoning and Planning Boards in Sturbridge implemented such techniques? Many communities and cities across the country have done so with great success. Finance Committee talks about implementing Smart Growth in their Annual Town Meeting report, but there are few if any worthwhile recommendations. They support a 1.3 mgd plant, which is larger than that recommended by the “experts”. Some residents have circulated a petition driven by the group “Growing Business in Sturbridge”, which will ask residents at town meeting to support a 1.5 mgd plant. That is the high end of the capacity which is NOT recommended by the “experts”. Their focus is on business only, it seems.
Sturbridge is not alone when facing trials and tribulations with regard to its existing condition, necessary growth, and impacts from that growth on its current residents and future generations. Taxpayers have a personal stake in the outcome of upcoming warrant articles at town meeting because they will be paying for improvements from which future generations will benefit. Therefore, the whole of Sturbridge should make a commitment to growing in a sustainable manner by implementing and using Smart Growth techniques. It’s not just about sewer, it’s about a whole host of issues, which includes using techniques such as: redevelopment (revitalization); “fix it first” (use and improve infrastructure); concentrate development (compact, walkable, mixed-use developments); foster sustainable businesses (natural resource based businesses that use sustainable practices in energy production and use, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, recreation and tourism); be fair (promote equitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of development); and lastly, plan regionally but implement locally.
We should focus on land use and infrastructure impacts in the areas that have sewer, and those that are potentially receiving sewer connections. Sewer expansion will dramatically affect development patterns in Sturbridge. In the 1950’s, we learned that where highways went, sprawl followed. And that sprawled development gave us traffic jams and smog, too many cars, too much lost land, and central cities beset by social and fiscal troubles. Where sewer goes, development will follow, some of it far from existing public infrastructure.
If infrastructure planning takes place without thoughtful planning, then in five or ten years, the town will be asked to pay for all the additional infrastructure needed to support new development spurred by that sewer infrastructure – wider and longer roads, public transit, more sewer system expansion, more expensive school expansions – all with taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, the development spurred by unconsidered sewer expansion will place stresses on open space, view-sheds, and wildlife habitat and water quality in the receiving sewer-sheds.
Expanding commercial and industrial development certainly costs a town less than residential development, but with commercial and industrial development follows residential growth – it’s a natural progression.
Immediately, Sturbridge should consider land use planning and zoning which would channel development close to existing centers and other existing major infrastructure, such as roads and sewer; it is already allowing multifamily housing, which uses less water per capita than single family homes; it should favor “low impact development”, and concentrate on revitalization of town centers, use of vacant lots, and reuse of existing buildings.
Change isn’t going to happen overnight, and the current state of Sturbridge didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of tens of years overlooking the towns’ cycles of growth, expansion and decline. But it is a cycle, and now is the time to be proactive, not reactive.
The town has taken a great first step by forming an Economic Development Committee. Can a group of persons be designated to reach out to, and work with business owners and landowners to discuss their plans for their properties? Can the town create a “wish list” so that when channeling such development to the downtown area, a case by case review is conducted to ensure it meshes with the towns goals, and also to meet the needs of business owners? Is a municipal partnership a possibility?
Can the EDC consider designating an area, for example, consisting of all of Route 131 from the Southbridge town line to the Brimfield town line on Route 20? Can the EDC then break down that area into sections for review and consideration by zoning and planning officials? Within the context of that Designated Area and specific sections, can zoning changes be applied on a case by case basis?
If any of this is possible - and it has been done before with the state of Maryland being the most outstanding example of Smart Growth - what are Sturbridge officials waiting for?
Why isn't Sturbridge's Zoning & Planning Boards doing this?
Smart Growth is NOT just an Urban Planning Tool. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides Commonwealth Capital guidelines for municipalities, and in fact, Governor Deval Patrick sent a letter to all municipalities in 2007 which encourages municipalities to promote livable communities, amend zoning and issue permits for mixed uses, promotes zoning for compact development which encourages INLAW apartments, clustered developments or Open Space Residential developments, zoning which encourages inclusion of affordable units - the list goes on.
In addition to my letter, I would like to provide the following information for readers, in case they would like to learn more about Smart Growth, and the Smart Growth Technical Assistance which is available from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
In July 2007, Governor Deval Patrick mailed letters to all municipalities encouraging to take advantage of Smart Growth measures in fiscal 2008, and to apply for Smart Growth Assistance.
At the state's website above, you will find the Governor's letter and Guidance documents for all municipalities which encourage Smart Growth. (For additional document click here)
If Smart Growth was only intended for urban areas, then every town in the Commonwealth would not be invited to participate.
The fact of the matter is: this information is available, the assistance is available, grants are available - yet, there is no movement from Zoning and Planning to institute these Smart Growth measures. And it's exacerbated by the negative stance of many in town government, such as "it'll go down in flames".
Submitted by -- Daily Reader
The following are links for sites that either agree with, or oppose the Smart Growth Concept. --ed.
"Remember what the dormouse said, "Feed your head."--Grace Slick