Southeastern Mass. organizes to block region’s over-development

Culminating a year-long effort, activists from the 51 communities of Southeastern Massachusetts will soon present legislators with a series of recommendations to save the region from over-development.

The recommendations, which call for communities to share the costs and benefits of development, come from a group united by a common interest: the preservation of the region’s quality of life, which has made it the fastest-growing section of the state.

The group of planners, politicians, environmentalists, and business people from Norwell to New Bedford, which calls itself “Vision 2020,” will present its findings later this month.

“There’s still a great deal to be preserved,” said John Lenox, director of planning and development for the town of Plymouth and a task force member. “There’s some very emotional issues involved here.”

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Emotional and important. At stake, members say, is the future of the area’s inner cities, open space, and water supply. The recommendations call for communities to plan for growth region wide, and for policy makers to encourage the development of down- towns while discouraging sprawl, the continued push of development into rural areas.

Some recommendations involve legislative action. Others call for city, town, and citizen involvement, said Martin I. Cohn, communications consultant for the task force.

The group recommends:

Creating incentives to invest in “Priority Development Areas,” of inner cities;

increasing state and federal funding for open space acquisition in the region;

promoting a coordinated regional review of highway and transit projects;

forming a region-wide “Growth Management Information Center;”

establishing a steering committee for regional growth development.

It also recommends that the region form a policy plan to tackle issues such as: land use and housing; open space and natural resources; and economic development and transportation. Other recommendations will come as the group refines its report that it will present to the Legislature.

Explosive growth has triggered the effort. According to the task force, more land has been developed in the past 40 years than was developed in the first 330 years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth.

Group members say unplanned growth is largely to blame. But they stress that they do not oppose all growth. Rather, they want to channel it toward areas where roads, bridges, and sewer connections already exist.

They also want communities to cooperate. A common problem, they say, occurs when a development plunks down on a town line, forcing boarding communities – which receive none of the tax revenues – to deal with more traffic. Communities could negotiate deals to share costs and revenues of such development, planners say.

Part of the problem is that current policies discourage such agreements. Though it is out of the immediate breath of Vision 2020’s purpose, members said the state will have to examine its tax policies. With the cost of schools and other services straining municipal budgets, communities are battling one another for commercial development to boost their tax base, members said.

“Towns are competing for tax revenue and scarce dollars, and they’ll take anything if it will solve a short-term problem,” said Stephen C. Smith, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District in Taunton. “A lot of land-use decisions are being driven by very short-term financial decisions.”

Good planning requires towns to evaluate their resources realistically, Lenox said. For example, not all areas of the region should have sewer connections, and not all roads should be paved, he said. Areas with good soil are best served with septic systems, while dirt roads preserve character in areas that have traditionally had them, Lenox said. Plymouth has avoided paving certain roads for this reason, he said.

Indeed, one of the group’s recommendations is for the formation of sewer management districts where the expansion of sewer lines would promote sprawl. People need to realize, Lenox said, that you can’t always have the “advantages of the countryside with the services of the city.”

The Legislature is already taking some actions. State Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, of Taunton, has filed a bill that would allow communities to create a land transfer tax to protect open space or rehabilitate an old building. It is similar to land bank programs, he said, except that the money may be used for other purposes.

Similar preservation efforts are sprouting around the country. For example, Vice President Al Gore has recently announced his “Livability Agenda,” in which President Clinton will ask Congress for money to preserve green space, ease traffic congestion, enhance economic competitiveness, and promote collaboration among neighboring communities. Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency is holding a conference on smart growth in Boston Tuesday, Feb. 2.

But Vision 2020 expects to battle some obstacles as well. For example, many of the 51 communities do not have comprehensive master plans to govern their growth. And though the 47 or so members of the group have been working for months, its members still need to promote the message in their communities.

“A major piece of our work ahead is to broadcast (our message),” said Donald L. Connors, a Boston lawyer and chairman of the group.

But motivating them is the fear that their communities will continue to lose their identity as sprawl turns distinctive towns into Boston suburbs. Members say the way to fight that trend is to create jobs, while protecting the quality of life the brought people to Southeastern Massachusetts in the first place.

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