The other day my wife and I attended a New England town meeting; truly one of the last bastions of a true democracy. Here the local town folk all meet to review, debate, and vote on budgets, proposed rules, and proposed codes. The debate over the various issues is often spirited. It is very refreshing to see how civil most people are despite their varying opinions.
One of the issues that have been debated in the past and at our most recent town meeting is related to zoning. Out town is a small rural community that is situated in a large rural county in the northwest corner of Massachusetts on the Vermont state line. Recent growth in surrounding towns has our volunteer town planners trying to be proactive about controlled growth. The issues are many.
Despite years and years of information from various planning agencies that growth ultimately increases individual tax assessments, there are those who seem to think that having more residential parcels and houses will decrease assessments. The cost of putting one child through our school system is more expensive than the average tax bill on an annual basis, so this is clearly not possible. This issue seems to come up every year.
The more challenging issue relative to controlled growth seems to be related to individual property rights. Many New Englanders are fervent defenders of the principle “It’s my land, I bought it, I pay taxes on it, and I’ll do what I like with it.” This point of view is as old as our nation and probably could be traced back to our European ancestors. I find myself wondering where the origin of this concept began. Is it from the Judeo-Christian principle of mans dominion over the Universe? Or, perhaps, it stems from old Anglican property law. The idea of property ownership translating to “I can do whatever the hell I like with it” is quite interesting.
Not too long ago many people thought that owning slaves was an individual right. The attitude was that the slaves were purchased, taxes were paid on the slaves’ value, and therefore they could do whatever they wanted with the slaves. Wars were fought over this concept. The greatest and worst war our country ever fought was over this issue. It occurs to me that the opinion of some over land ownership (it’s my land and I’ll do what I like) isn’t unlike the slave ownership issue.
Unlike past generations we now know that we do not have infinite resources. We also know that our planet has vast ecosystems that need to be maintained in order for our planet to have a healthy future, or even worse, any future at all. We now know that all elements on this planet are nearly completely interdependent and if we do not respect that balance then their will be deleterious consequences. At a regional level we know that the connectivity and continuity of our forests, ecosystems, and wildlife habitat are critical for their survival. It is my opinion that our quality of life is at severe jeopardy if we do not pay attention to this issues.
The concept of planned development is an effort to work with natural systems, human need, and local economics. Unlike what many people think, it is not a concentrated effort to tramp on individual civil liberties but an effort to promote sensible, intelligent development that will benefit a community and not harm, in any significant way, our natural systems.
Planners have many tools at their disposal to promote land planning concepts. Clustered development, increase lot size and road frontage, zoning to place certain activities in appropriate locales are all strategies that if implemented correctly, with the individual concerns of a community in mind, will help to put growth in a proper place and perspective.
Having said all this, one large question remains. How much government intrusion is an individual expected to tolerate? This is a perplexing issue and this is precisely why many of these decisions should be made at the local level where individuals can meet, face to face, and determine what is right for their community. In most cases, where debate leads to solutions rather than divided camps, acceptable rules can be put into place that are not intrusive and allow ecological systems to function without harm.
I am proud to live in a democratic republic where, through direct debate and representative government, we have the power to conduct our lives in a sane and sensitive way. It is our responsibility to exercise that power. That means we should all participate, speak our opinions, listen to those who differ from us, and seek solutions that are palatable to both our neighbors and the natural world.
We live in a time when these types of eco-political decisions are imperative and critical. Our happiness, welfare, and our very lives depend on making intelligent decisions at local, state, federal, and international levels. If we work with the planet it will respond in kind.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in May of 2009.