Autumn in the North Cemetery.

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

If There Were 84 Cats Living In The Town Hall, I'd Understand

Every once in a while we read in the paper, or see on the evening , story about hoarding. Now, this isn't the hoarding one would normally expect, like buying three gallons of milk the day before a snow storm, but what is actually a neurosis. We've all heard a story about the "crazy cat lady" that has 84 cats living with her, or people that have gone into a the home of a person only to find it completely filled with stacks of newspapers, used gift wrap, QVC purchases, canned pineapple, and other bizarre mementos. This is called hoarding. People find a compulsion to collect random things that mean something to them, and to collect it till the day they die. Often times the collected items take over their home leaving only small passageways through rooms from the kitchen to the bathroom. The bed is usually covered with items so sleeping in it is out of the question. the couch or a soft chair in the living room becomes their nighttime getaway, if they can find it.

This kind of hoarding is an illness, and if not treated early, can fully control ones life. The reasons given for such behavior range from "I just like cats.", to "I don't ever want to be caught short of canned pineapple." to "I want to finish reading that issue of Life magazine."

I saw a program on TV where a middle aged man collected all sorts of stuff he found at the curb on trash day. He'd bring his treasures home and store them in his garage, basement, and under one of the dozens of tarps in his yard.

"I could use this thing someday." It's too good to just throw away."

By spending time with the man, listening to him, and understanding just how much the behavior controlled him, the producers of the show, with the help of professionals, were able to begin the long process of desensitizing him tho his compulsion, and begin the separation process between him and his treasures before his wife left him.

Hoarding things for an emergency can be fine, if it s batteries for a flashlight for the "Storm Box", or bottled water for an emergency, but this isn't actually hording, but rather just stocking up.

Towns can hoard, too.

Towns can buy up a lot of land with the intent of preserving it from development, and keeping the town from being overbuilt. They will promote the recreational activities the land could support, and eventually, the towns people will concur, and vote to make the purchase.

Heck, sounds good.

Then another parcel comes up for sale, and the town grabs that one as well having done nothing with the first piece of land. This can go on for years. Each time another parcel, more promises of what it could be used for like ball fields, canoe launches, nature trails, and picnic groves, and nothing is ever done.

Volunteers finally step up, and organize. They plan out a trail system, get contractors to volunteer time, equipment, and materials, and rely on a crew of loyal towns people to volunteer their labor.

The town, in the meantime, looks for an appropriate logo to put on some signs at the entrance to the land.

When a town announces plans to purchase a property, and offers all sorts of plans for it, those plans should be part of the article entered into the town warrant for the purchase of the land along with the cost. Just putting in an article for the purchase of the land for a certain amount does not guarantee anything will ever be done with the property, in fact, the town could change the proposed use of the land to suit its needs at any time.

Hoarding of land by towns, just for the sake of hoarding, and then letting them sit does little for the town, except cost it money.

So, of course, I've been thinking. From now on if the town proposes to purchase land for a particular purpose it must be first proposed by an elected board. Call it the Land Acquisition Board. Now, when word is on the street that a particular parcel is up for sale, and the town is interested in it, the boards job will be:

  • Have a definite purpose for the land that will be beneficial to those living in town.
  • Develop, and institute a viable plan for that purpose for immediately after purchase, two years out, five years out, and beyond that.
  • Research costs, and include them in the proposal.
  • Develop a manner in which the costs will be covered beyond taxes. This would include membership fee's, grants, State and Federal money.
  • Allow for input from the resident in town as to just how the land should be used. Allow for a variety of ideas beyond the original scope, and tailor the final plan to be as beneficial to as many in town as possible.
  • And, finally, how will the town recover its original costs? Or will it? This must be included in the original plan.
Without a plan, or a defined purpose the buying of land because it is there is akin to the old man and his 37 Dachshunds living in his single wide trailer.

Recently, some folks in town offered some plans for the Leadmine Property. It was nice to see. The land is the site of the very first co-ed summer camp in the nation. A part of Sturbridge history, of course, but a part of our nations history as well. Something should be done to make note of this. A bronze plaque on a large stone would be great. Of course that is like giving a dozen roses to ones wife. You give the roses, but the vase is too small, so you get a new one, and the table in not the best place to put it, so you buy a new table cloth, but it makes the walls look drab, so you repaint the room, only to find the curtains look dated, so new curtains, paint, tablecloth, and vase later the roses finally get placed in the center of the table.

By then, the petals begin to fall off the roses.

Placing a monument to Camp Robinson Crusoe is a great idea, but as announced at the meeting, there is a lot of housekeeping to do in the area beyond the building of trails. Much like placing a dozen roses in the middle of a thicket. It takes vision to see beyond the purchase and sales agreement. Town officials, if lacking vision, should rely on those that have it.

Like the middle aged hoarder of stuff that TV producers brought in professionals to help, the town needs help, and they will refuse a lot of it because they are "fine". It's gonna take some tough love, but in the end, things will be so much better for everyone.

Listen to those that have a vision, and if they offer a way to make it happen, listen harder. Then, when all is said and done, make it happen.


  1. Good morning! I have to disagree: buying up land for conservation or passive/active recreation - which are two separate purposes - is not hoarding. I know developers who buy up land and hold it for years -it's called 'speculation'. They buy it when it's affordable, wait until market forces are right, then develop so they can capitalize on it, and realize a profit. That is their right, and that is the purpose of that land.

    Purchasing land for conservation is similar, but the land has a different purpose - a conservation purpose, which in the long run pays off by conserving natural resources, and NOT costing a town money. If that's hoarding, then land trusts, municipalities, and state agencies all over the world are hoarding, and have been doing it since the late 1800's. That emerald necklace around Boston which is enjoyed by millions of people - thank a land trust for hoarding that and sharing it with everyone. Wells State Park - thank the Dept of Conservation & Recreation for hoarding that, and while we're at it, the actual Leadmine in Sturbridge - thank the Trustees of Reservations for hoarding that. Each property has a conservation purpose, yet notice all are open to the public on different levels, and are for the public good.

    If you really look at this issue, what it boils down to is, buying land when it becomes available for sale, and if you're lucky - while it's affordable. You're fortunate if you accomplish the latter, while the former is unexpectedly tossed onto your lap.

    There are times when a town or land trust or state agency will determine that a certain piece of property is a prime piece for conservation acquisition, for reasons that the general public may not know about (however, you can learn simply by attending Open Space meetings), such as: watershed and freshwater conservation, connectivity to other conserved pieces for a trail system, rare species, or sometimes, just the sheer size of the parcel is good enough reason. Sometimes, it takes years to make such a purchase a reality. In the case of the Leadmine property, there just aren't very many 826 acre parcels left in New England - but there are numerous reasons why that parcel was acquired for conservation. And that property was on the town's radar screen for years. It was not an unplanned or haphazard acquisition, and it was purchased for conservation purposes, as stated in the town meeting warrant, not for a park.

    It's rare to see a transaction like the Leadmine property, and usually, conservation transactions like that are lost because the price is too high, or an agreement cannot be struck for any number of reasons, including unavailability of funds, or the stars (partners) just won't align.

    Each piece of purchased land does not necesssarily have to have a 'use' either. It can have scenic value, like that hilltop at the end of Route 148, or it can just function as undeveloped land buffering thousands of feet of riverfront, like the beautiful Quinebaug River. Like I always used to say "all land is not created equal".

    I also must disagree that undeveloped land costs money. It's the exact opposite really: undeveloped land does not tax the town's highway dept, or police dept, and there are no children entering the school system. If a town decides to spend money to develop an open space parcel, it has that choice - it's not forced to do it. Sure, it can be taken off the tax roles to make it affordable to keep undeveloped, but consider that the properties abutting and around it will increase in value, and the quality of life around those conservation pieces is enhanced because they offer direct access to passive recreation and natural scenic value.

    Having said all this, I also have to disagree that in some cases, the 'use' of a certain tract of land should go beyond a purchase & sales agreement. In the case of the Leadmine property, it was purchased by the town of Sturbridge, and the Dept of Fish & Game (DFG). The town owns the land, and the DFG owns the development rights. That means, the DFG owns the Conservation Restriction on the property, which lists allowed and prohibited uses. The way the CR is written right now, the property is not allowed to be turned into a park, period. I would hope that individuals on certain committees and commissions have read the CR and realize this. Some do realize it, but they ignore it. They should keep in mind however, it's a legal document that must be enforced by the CR holder. If the municipality is unhappy with how it's written, then it's very simple: make an appointment with the DFG and discuss changes to the CR. The DFG was a partner in a transaction that otherwise would not have happened - instead of challenging them, the town should be working with them.

    The bottom line is, any use the town would like, that is outside the provisions of the CR needs to be approved by DFG. This is something the town knew when the land was purchased, too.

    Ask the Town Hall for a copy of the CR, or find it at the Registry of Deeds, then you will have a better understanding. The CR is a legally binding document, which is beyond any P&S Agreement. If the town did NOT want the property to become a haven for hunting, fishing and passive recreation, then it should have sought out the Department of Conservation & Recreation as a partner in the purchase, which allows more active recreation and park-type uses.

    In closing, conservation transactions are a specialized type of transaction, and they usually are for the public good. Such is the case with the Leadmine property.

  2. I fully understand everything you have written, but the post was regarding all land obtained by the
    town, and only a portion of it was regarding the Leadmine Land. There are restrictions on the Leadmine property, but they do not prevent a safe road of entry, parking for those that use the site, signage, and the repair/construction of trails. The Heins Property was purchased and improvements were made by volunteers, and there has been nothing down with the parcel that runs along the south side of the river.

  3. Okay, but "hoarding" is not an applicable word to acquisition of open space. And expecting them to be all up and ready to go for use immediately is unrealistic when you consider all the work is being done by volunteers, which is typical in towns, and with land trusts, too.

    Volunteers will be the first to tell you how hard it is to get and keep volunteers to do all that work. Sturbridge volunteers have done a fantastic job given the limited time and resources they have to work with.

    All good things take time.

    Actually, per the CR, signs are not allowed; parking is allowed, but it has to meet the CR requirements. If you look at most DFG sites, they have a tiny dirt lot used by hunters, mostly. I didn't mention trails or access. I focused mainly on your comment about "hoarding" land.

  4. i was surprised when the conservation commission chair actually suggested taking a football sized section of open space and filling it with wood chips. call me nuts, but woodchips in place of the currently exhisting natural state. that may not be hoarding, but is sure is horrible.

  5. i was surprised when the conservation commission chair suggested placing woodchips on a football sized field down by the robinson camp. it may not be hoarding, but it sure is a horrible idea. how does it make any sense to destroy the current natural habitat such as it is and woodchip it?

  6. If the Leadmine property was intended to have any kind of a 'park' on it, my humble opinion is that DFG wouldn't have been a partner in the purchase - it never would have been acquired because: they were the partner needed to pay the other half of the purchase price (and had the money available to do it), and also, DFG has very strict guidelines for use of land -DFG stands for: Department of Fish & Game.

    So, to me, owning the land is the first step in the process toward trail building, planning, and use. Not owning the land means you have nothing to work with.

    If a 'park' is what some people desire, then a different partner in that purchase should have been sought out, such as Dept of Conservation & Recreation, which allows and promotes camping, swimming, and even motorized vehicles on some of their properties. But with state budgets as they are, DCR likely didn't have the money to spend in this area of MA.

    Those involved in conservation transactions know: finding a partner with funds to purchase such a huge tract of land is rare. When the stars align for such an acquisition, it's a good combination of legal and real estate expertise, the right partners, and some luck thrown in, too.

    No one has asked, but my advice is: enjoy and appreciate the parcel for what it is and that it was acquired at all; give credit to those who helped to get it purchased for conservation and passive recreational purposes(which includes hunting, fishing, etc - but not "parks"), and also give credit to those volunteers who have worked tirelessly thus far to bring up to standard for use; and thank our lucky stars that it's there for all to enjoy.

    As for Camp Robinson Crusoe: I don't see how a "park" will memorialize something that meant so much to many summer campers. As campers who enjoyed getting away from their respective paved-over cities, perhaps removing the reclaimed naturalness of the camp is not befitting at all?

    Perhaps a high quality interpretive sign or small shelter with photos of some of the buildings and campers, include the camps mission statement, its history, and how the former camp area is now used and enjoyed by people everywhere. Permission for such a sign will be necessary from DFG, as the Conservation Restriction doesn't permit signs on the property. But ask nicely, follow the steps to get permission as outlined in the CR, and maybe it can happen.

    Happy Holidays everyone!

  7. Forest management is something that still must be done in order to get the best growth. This may require thinning invasive species, or removing them. Removing dead wood, both standing and down for safety is another ting that will be needed. Chipping the wood taken down, or removed is the best way to get rid of it, and to use it. If humans are to use the land, really use it, more than just look at it, then it has to be cleaned up, and made safe, too. Management is a time consuming thing, but a must.


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