Creeping land development in suburban Massachusetts

“Projecting forward current land-use trends for much of the United States yields a bleak vision in which protected lands form islands of twenty, forty, or at best a few hundred acres in polluted seas of asphalt or lawn.” —Richard Brewer, Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America

Last weekend, back in my hometown for a few days, I drove down a road that has always been lined with forest.  Norton is a small town an hour outside of Boston, distinguished from the city by its beautiful woodlands and wildlife.  Although not rural, the community has maintained much of its small-town feel.  Main Street, one of the busier stretches in town, has two churches, a library, a few schools, and two pharmacies.  The rest is mostly residential.  While a few developments feature bland McMansions right next to each other and not a tree in sight, much of the town remains wooded.  Most of my childhood was spent outdoors playing in these woods–climbing trees, spying on animals, exploring.  It would seem that most of the town is already built up, with just enough buffer between houses and developments.  I believed this situation was static, until recent events showed otherwise.

Oak Street is a narrow, winding residential road.  It goes past farms and woods.  It’s a picturesque road, one that hasn’t changed much in the twenty-six years of my life.  A few days ago, I was shocked to see this:

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A huge swath of the woods has suddenly been chopped down, apparently making way for a new development of condos.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Houghton’s Farm is slated for development into an industrial park.  The farm has been there since 1959.  The town plans to re-zone the land from agricultural into industrial use.

The land is particularly valuable for commercial interests because of its proximity to Highway 495 and Route 123.  It is a convenient location for businesses.  The businesses will bring jobs and tax revenue to the town.

In a document summarizing the proposed re-zoning, the town claims that about 23% of the land in Norton is permanently protected open land.  Interestingly, this claim was put in near the top of the summary, as though to defuse any criticism about accelerating land development.

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These fields will become the home of Norton’s newest industrial “park.”

It is natural that the town Selectmen are interested in generating revenue.  However, it remains unclear whether overall development plans for Norton in any way account for the preferences of town residents, and whether they adequately account for the costs of such development.  For instance, while new residential developments increase tax revenue, they also introduce substantial costs in the form of increased congestion (which leads to increased road repairs, etc.), increased costs of town services, and strain on the school system.

Additionally, land development lowers quality of life.  No one is happy to see open spaces eaten up by new malls and businesses.  People living in Norton have often chosen this town exactly because it is a small town.  We do not want our surroundings to become too cramped, too citified.  Yet it seems that developers have the main say in whether our town becomes more and more city-like, removing our woods and fields while crowding our space.  Rampant development will change the character of our town irrevocably.

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