The Rate of Development by law was soundly defeated at town meeting following a lively debate. In hindsight, what happened and why.
As expected, and understood, many feel less government and land owner rights need to be protected from more regulations and limits on uses. Individual rights have been the rock of our democracy since the pioneers that took over this country. I have enjoyed acting as king of my little twenty acre farm here in Pepperell. But I also am proud of the limits of use I am responsible to that honors the needs of my community, two acre zoning, water resource protections and paying taxes to ensure we all have the protective services we want.
I hope to also take pride in my efforts to protect our affordable, friendly, small town, rural character which does all of it's part in preventing the harms of climate change to our citizens and children. Supporting research on community development, a deep dive, best practice effort to ensure our best future for generations to come, will continue to be my ambition.
I will claim the post of underdog in opposing the "less planned" development path some cling to. As near by urban areas have backfilled, (adjusted zoning to reach the limits of further building lots) and remote work has increased, housing pressures in Pepperell are likely to increase. Internal and international climate migration is also likely to add pressure to our housing stock. Like dominoes, rural towns have fallen to development pressures as evidenced by Littleton, Acton, Chelmsford, etc. Pepperell will likely fall too. The position that "we don't have a residential housing problem" is shortsighted. Perhaps it's the pioneer spirit of adventure and meeting problems as they arise, misleads us in not recognizing that planning when there isn't a crisis is the best time to do that work. Prevention is not a human strength, yet but climate science is working on that. My friend Quentin Cutler, opposing the ROD, quoted Eisenhower, "Plans are useless, planning is essential!" Well, what I hear IKE advising is "planning is essential", and yes, they may not work out. If Ike had been present I'm sure he would have voted for the by-law. Jenny Gingras as a loving mother, wants her children to be able to live in Pepperell many years in the future. I have a daughter too. I don't wish for any child that the housing choices they have are in crowded, polluted and expensive affluent towns. I want to promise our children housing in a zero carbon community and the health of a small town community spirit that is very diverse in cultures and ethnicity with an abundance of health giving farms and green spaces.
The building permits the ROD proposed to limit are currently for very expensive housing and favors the very monoculture growth the ROD opponents want to avoid. Advocating for "affordable housing" , I believe frightens people with visions of high rise tenements, unsavory tenants and drug dealing, criminal elements with kids flooding our schools. We need a better understanding of who has access to that protected housing. Owners and renters can be our own school teachers, town safety personnel, workforce folks and disadvantaged families.
David Ganong read a 1970's document describing the same debate and concerns we discussed at this Special Town meeting, seeming to conclude that nothing has changed and we must be ok where we are. What Dave doesn't know is that since the 70's I have lost over half of the farm land acres to development that I have farmed. The problem is indeed the same, and has become far more critical. I have not yet heard from the pro-development folks how we are going to keep expanding residential growth and add to our natural and farm resources. I have asked Al Patenaude, Chair of the Planning Board to put that question on the Planning Board agenda. He agreed that would be a welcome discussion. He further explained that it's been difficult to get to that because of the tangle of recent development messes the planning board is dealing with. That, to me, speaks to the problem.
Developers and local citizens have been at odds over the direction of their town growth ever since the need for "elbow room" and "go west, young man, go west" ended as an option for all. Wanting to have a town environment that most people are happy with has become, too often, a heated and at times, unhealthy argument.
Pepperell, in my experience, is currently suffering from a hostile civic environment with developers attacking the conservation and environmentalists voices. Developers see open land as opportunity for building, conservation/environmentalists value open land for its natural aseets.
Climate change is a new player at the debate table and values open land as the natural solution to balancing our carbon footprint. Any additional infrastructure adds to our carbon out put, cluster development, affordable housing, green energy homes, are carbon adders. Open land is carbon negative and keeping a local supply helps us to reach the 0 carbon goal by 2050.
The proposed rate of development by law accomplishes two things. It limits housing permits without totally shutting down housing growth, historically reducing annual permits from twelve to fifteen per year , to ten per year. Not a severe limit, for four years. Secondly, it asks the Planning Board to use current professional best practice municipal planning tools to predict financial and environmental outcomes of development scenarios. Within four years Pepperell voters can then choose the path for Pepperell's future., considering finances, resources and climate change. It is, in my opinion, a very smart approach to being in control of our lives and ensuring the health of Pepperell, especially in reaching the 0 carbon by 2050 goal.
Some of the arguments against the ROD by-law are puzzling. It has been proposed that Pepperell has a slow rate of development now and limits aren't needed. The same folks argue limits will have serious economic consequences. It seems this by-law will have little impact on economic development, "we don't have a problem" . Better planning may provide the type of economic growth we all seek.
The finance committee suggests we can't reasonably plan beyond four to five years, citing their business experience. However, we just completed a ten year TownMaster Plan, Massachusetts has written it's 0 carbon Plan by 2050, (27 year plan) and decades ago we developed a zoning plan that guides us to this day. Planning for interactions with consumers as businesses do, is very likely quite different from municipal planning where
we have governing tools to overcome challenges of variables of the future.
Opponents have suggested this is a snob by-law. However it promotes the diversity gained by redirecting a focus on affordable housing and away from residential permits. now given for "snob housing" in the $500,00 plus price range permits are going to.
Some have complained that the Grow Smart group is opposed to tranparency and public education. However they have held multiple public information meetings, have posted their web site and put out a public mailer to all voters. They withdrew from a Citizen Engagement Night invitation due to fears that the debate opponents would further aggravate the hostile environment that has evolved among our community leaders. (a problem that needs to be resolved)
I understand the pull back from folks that complain that it is unfair to land owners who are compromised by government interference with their ownership rights. Unfortunately, we live in a crowded world and sometimes individual rights are compromised for the greater good. Consider my twenty acre farm is zoned for two acre house lots . For the greater good, I'm limited, as are others, on how. my land can be used. Daniel Boon, now, has nowhere to go to escape the crowd.
Overall, I see a continuing effort by some, as evidenced by the 40R, AROD by laws, to build out Pepperell. Voters have turned them down, wanting to preserve the town they love. Voting for the ROD by-law is an important step in pursuing best practices and controlling for future expenses and having the town we enjoy. I am confident that we can get to a plan that preserves affordability for both blue and white collar workers and achieves a net 0 carbon footprint.
Pepperell's vote for a 2 1/2 proposed override for a new $38 million plus safety complex couldn't arrive at a worse financial time. There is no doubt that Pepperell police and fire department need and deserve better facilities, but I believe the planning for this facility was irresponsible in not considering the devastating financial impacts of the cost of this proposed safety complex on our citizens. The Town Administrator believes Pepperell citizens can afford this and more capital projects. I do not. We need a more affordable safety building plan to consider. Unfortunately, tax payers face the unavoidable challenge of the twenty three million dollar expense of water treatment and water supply costs due to our PFAS pollution needs. We also have unknown future cost of cleaning up our PFAS soil polluted site on Jersey St. And our school district asks for a budget debt exclusion of $700,000, all together creating a heavy lift of tax increases. We will need to raise property taxes to meet a new debt amount of around sixty two million dollars.
The annual tax increase for the average $400,000 home will be:
School Budget Override. $159
Water Treatment and supply. $311
Safety Complex. $512
Total increase $982
Can Pepperell families bear this tax increase? Some families can afford it........too many cannot and they will either be forced into property tax delinquency, making difficult trade-offs between medication, heat, and food needs, or loss of their homes. There are multiple longterm consequences of such a large debt load on our citizens. In the current absence of sufficient affordable housing in town, Pepperell will take another step toward sacrificing its socio-economic diversity forcing moderate and low income families out and moving toward a more up scale, affluent community.
In my lifetime experience Pepperell has taken pride in being a blue collar, small, tightly knit, friendly community. We are now challenged by ideas promoting rural Pepperell to give up it's farm roots to become a suburban, affluent community. This very expensive safety complex, in my opinion, is based on the belief among community leaders have that residents either can or should be able to afford such an expensive project. and if you can't afford it you shouldn't live here. It would have been far wiser and fair to consider what tax payers can reasonably afford for a new safety complex and advising the designers of our cost limits.
I believe the current cumulative budget needs far exceeds our families ability to pay without significant tragic consequences to long-term residents and young working families with limited ability to keep up with sharply rising utility and property tax bills. I had hoped our Financial Advisory Committee would have advised us on the consequences of such a sudden increase in our debt obligations. To my knowledge, we haven't estimated the number of home owners who struggle with their property tax bills and estimated the likely increase in the default rate given these proposed costs. We know we have a substantial population that live near or below the poverty line in Pepperell. I also worry that, in addition to this debt load driving up tax delinquency, we could end up defaulting on our debt with a disastrous loss of our town credit rating.
Further, I believe it is reasonable to anticipate that future capital expenditure needs will be beyond consideration for decades to come. Proposal of this safety complex begs the question of our community leaders strategizing to counter our rural quality wishes and create debt that requires a build out of Pepperell in the pursuit of becoming a more affluent town with higher property tax income.
Further, town officials appear to be limiting public information on the cost of the proposed Safety Complex, with the absence of a citizens engagement night program, limited Town web site information and misleading town signage. ("Special Town Election" rather than "38 million expenditure").
I urge you to honor your support for our emergency services thru another and immediate design effort and vote NO to a 2 1/2 override to build this Safety Complex.