The Loudest Voices In The Room

Full disclosure:  I live about a half a mile from the derelict cornfield at 59 Pleasant Street.  My neighborhood, originally dubbed Cronin Brook/Chestnut Ridge, is directly across Pleasant Street. 

My neighborhood runs sharply south-west up hill, and consists of Christopher Drive which ends in a cul-de-sac, but not before banking a left onto a very brief Laura Lane, which banks right onto a downhill Danielle Drive. Christopher Drive is surrounded on both sides by conservation land.  The east side of properties on Danielle Drive also are bordered by conservation land running down to Millbury Street.  The deer and wildlife are plentiful. They are lovely and they eat my plants.

I’ve lived here for a decade, and for that entire time, and likely much more, 59 Pleasant Street has been vacant and for sale.  And for a decade, there were no bidders. Until now.  Now, there is sudden and intense interest in this otherwise useless field.  What prompted sudden interest in the land, you ask?  The inconvenience of providing other people with homes in which to raise children.

Deny it if you must, but the facts before us lead us to this inexorable conclusion.  What’s worse is that cowardly, fraidy-cat local government, the province of semi-professional hacks since time immemorial, is constantly willing to oblige hypocritical tendencies and wasted no time placating them here.

Ladies and gentlemen, you wonder why government has failed you in the 21st Century?  I give you 59 Pleasant Street.  It has everything that plagues public life:  ineptitude, lack of vision and lack of talent.  Oh, and NIMBYism. 

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In case you have not heard, or in case you have heard and it just doesn’t affect you and you need to be reminded again, Massachusetts is in the middle of a “Housing Crisis.”  This began in earnest roughly in 2008 and continues to this day, and is generally defined by a lack of available housing to meet demand such that prospective homeowners are typically paying over 30% of their take home pay to cover housing costs.  When combined with other needs, it means that the middle class is getting screwed.

If you graduated college in the 1990s or 2000s, and wonder why you can’t pay your mortgage, save for both retirement and college for your kids the same way that your parents did, the Massachusetts housing market has some answers for you.  More to the point, your local politicians and they very vocal neighbors that they listen to have answers for you.  Massachusetts’ arcane rules about zoning and home construction, combined with newer state laws that followed urban renewal in the 1990s, make it incredibly difficult to create new housing here.  As a result, home costs have skyrockteted as demand has increased but housing supply has stagnated.

The average Grafton home value was about $100,000 in 1990.  In 2000 – just two decades ago – it was $183,000.  It now approaches $400,000 (plus or minus, depending who you ask).

This is a double-edged sword for long-time Grafton residents.  The benefits of home ownership here have paid off – even doing very little, a modest investment has more than doubled over twenty years.  But so too have taxes, which drive opposition to more development and the prospect of more families moving into town, who consume more and increasingly expensive services, like education.

But, Massachusetts (specifically, Boston->west) ranks in the top-ten least affordable places to live in the United States recently, and the fact that we rank last in the nation consistently in housing starts is a big reason for that.  Since 2008, we have produced half of the units necessary to meet demand.  Covid has, of course, exacerbated this problem and has made home ownership for the middle class a prospect that is increasingly, if not entirely, out of reach.

And what is Grafton doing locally to solve this problem?

Nothing. In fact, we’re inventing new ways to make it worse.

*           *           *           *           *

59 Pleasant Street in Grafton is an old cornfield that hasn’t done anything in over a decade but sit there and be for sale.

Directly across the street is the Cronin Brook/Chestnut Ridge Development consisting of hundreds of homes on one-acre lots built twenty-five years ago.  They’re all two story colonials with nice, big leafy yards and two-car garages.  It’s a nice neighborhood populated by an upper middle class, mostly white, crowd.

It’s also one that used to be home to a lot of trees and deer.  So, you can imagine my surprise when the 5.6 acre space across the street slated to be turned into homes suddenly became a battleground for the preservation of trees and deer.

59 Pleasant is, in total, about 36 acres of field and wetlands.  5.6 acres of which is primarily old cornfield and directly abuts Pleasant Street, right across from Christopher.  The remainder is wetlands and wooded trail.  In theory, a majority of it would be largely unbuildable, with only the 5.6 acre frontage available to build on. 

The 5.6 acres was, however, former agriculture use land and under Massachusetts General Laws chapter 61A, the town has a right of first refusal when the owner wants to sell the land for another use.  In this case, the owner has an offer on the Property for $650,000 for residential development.  We can match the offer or lose the land.  By the way, we’re not a particularly wealthy town and don’t really have the $650,000 to spend on an old cornfield.  Not with all those bothersome kids to educate, anyway.

Ordinarily, 5.6 acres of former cornfield being for sale in Grafton would not turn heads.  It’s not a large lot.  It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, important.  It is not historical.  It is unremarkable in nearly every respect.

Except to the people across the street.

*           *           *           *           *

I could tell you what happened next, but you can guess.  There became a sudden groundswell of opposition to any development on this land.  And why, you ask?  Accounts vary.

Being part of the neighborhood, I received the neighborhood group emails, in which people initially expressed a vague “concern” about any potential development.  You know how “concern” goes.  We’re not saying it’s good or bad.  We’re just “concerned.”

Next, from one concerned neighbor, came the suggestion that “the town should buy the land and have it as conservation land. We definitely don’t need another development over there as it’s a massive drain on resources along with increased traffic and disruption. I’m hoping that we could get neighbors together again to share their feelings and lobby for the land to be purchased from town for conservation purposes.”

Then, someone wrote “Yikes! Are there any lawyers in the group?” (Yes).

When I pointed out that I couldn’t disagree more with their general, stated position on development, and added “Yes In My Back Yard,” one of the neighbors asked “Why did you leap to NIMBY?”

Then, someone started a petition.

*           *           *           *           *

In 2017, Boston University authored a study detailing the potential, unintentional detrimental impact of encouraging participation in local democratic institutions, particular to land use in Massachusetts.  The media labeled it a study in NIMBYism.  What BU found was, despite the best intentions of legislation making the world more inclusive and transparent, when it came to housing the only thing that happened through inclusivity was that neighbors were alerted to development and showed up in droves to thwart it.  All the time.

They also found that that activity had an actual impact on development and elected officials’ disposition toward it.  And that activity goes a long way toward explaining your economic circumstance.

Massachusetts typically ranks near last in housing starts in the nation, and has for a long time.  Chapter 40B, or the so-called Anti-Snob Zoning Act, is 50 years old.  We’re twelve years into a housing crisis during which time we’ve produced about half the units necessary to meet demand.  This results in housing unaffordability, which prevents the middle class from accumulating real wealth.  And yet, housing advocates (advocates for the middle class, really), are dealing with resistance at every turn.

According to BU, the people who most often show up to local hearings concerning development are older, whiter, wealthier and are, themselves, already homeowners.  And they were more likely to be long-time residents, if not natives, of their community.  Sound familiar?  Remember that bit for a few paragraphs from now.

BU found that the list of reasons that people typically used to argue against  development were traffic, safety and the environment.

What reasons did we hear in argument against developing 59 Pleasant?

Traffic, safety and the environment.  This was as NIMBY as it gets.  What did we do in the face of NIMBYism?  What every incompetent, local hack Board does – we buckled like a belt.

*           *           *           *           *

To date, 59 Pleasant is a win for both the environment and housing.  We got the developer to put in writing that it was not going to develop the valuable and environmentally sensitive parcels of land (which in truth would seem to be difficult to develop anyway) in exchange for our foregoing our right of first refusal so that residential units could be built on 5.6 acres of former, presently unused, cornfield.

Win-win, right?!?

At the eleventh hour, a group of largely white, homeowner neighbors with forty-four (44!) petition signatures arrived at a zoom meeting and convinced Select Board Member Doreen Defazio to take up their cause.  Forty-four people.  That’s all it took.  Completely unrepresentative of a fraction of my neighborhood, but nevertheless, never let it be said that 80% of the work isn’t done by the 20% who show up.  (Incidentally… who speaks for the people who want to buy the homes but didn’t get to review that petition?  Were they alerted about this meeting?)  Ms. Defazio, who at the previous meeting on this topic had reminded everyone that she grew up here, has championed this “open space” as being crucial to the environment.  (See the BU study synopsis above).

Neighboring property owners, evidently content with their own relationship with deer and the environment, petitioned the town not to forgo its right of first refusal.  They assert that the property acts (not unlike their own) as a “wildlife corridor” for deer and further that the space “increases the health to us all from pollutants from or cars…”, unlike the street that we all live on, developed just two decades ago.

But, give a group of local politicians with a way out and… well… the petitioners convinced the Board to give them another week to raise $650,000 (the Purchase and Sale asking price) to help the Town buy the land to preserve the 5.6 acres of former cornfield.

What’s the big deal, my colleagues ask?  It’s just a week.  If they make it, they make.  If they don’t, they don’t.

*           *           *           *           *

I’ll tell you what the big deal is! By even entertaining the idea that a private group could raise the money to buy out the land, you’re suggesting that that’s the preferable plan.

And that I cannot respect.

At all.

We’re in a housing crisis!  The middle class is being screwed here, day in, day out. In small decision after small decision.  It’s slaughter by a million cuts.  And decisions like this one, where we continue to prioritize the needs of a vocal, relatively well-situated minority over everyone else, lead to bad outcomes for the tens of thousands of people who don’t show up but are nonetheless affected.

The development of 59 Pleasant Street will have zero impact on the environment.  Under our plan, the best portions of the land would be preserved.  The remainder could be occupied by people like the petitioners who would get to have their kids raised here just like we raised ours.

I’m talking to my colleagues now: If you believe that the best plan forward is to let an old cornfield remain for the aesthetic benefit of the landed class in Grafton at the expense of needy homebuyers, then you haven’t listened to a word I’ve had to say in ten years. 

Grafton is not an island apart from the rest of Massachusetts.  Our residents acutely feel the economic reality of housing, education and work conditions that surround them.  Platitudes like “I’m representing the people of Grafton” when placating a petition to represent a tiny, tiny, well-suited minority of them are, frankly, pathetic. 

Either you’re refusing to see a bigger picture or are incapable.  I’m not sure what’s worse.

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