Terry Cowgill posts a reaction to an ad taken out in the Lakeville Journal by Larry Power, a candidate for election to the Sharon Planning and Zoning Commission who is also the head of the Sharon Land Trust. I know both Terry and Larry, and conservation is my stock in trade, so I'm interested in the specific issues raised about this ad and the implications for those of us who work in the land protection field and try to convey information credibly and compellingly to the public.
"When I first saw the ad, I was drawn immediately to the graphic. Indeed my first reaction was, “Wow, that looks pretty nice. I’d love to live in one of those houses.” Not exactly the reax Power was looking for, but then again, I’m probably not typical of the audience he’s trying to reach in Sharon, where P&Z issues reached such a fevered pitch two years ago that Lawrence Kurland, a candidate for P&Z alternate, even had his own lawn signs.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see it. We are simply too far removed from major centers of employment and commerce to see the kind of residential and commercial development that has taken hold in New Milford or southern Dutchess County.
And I don’t buy the notion that market pressure from weekenders will spawn the kind of subdivisions depicted in Power’s ad. Most part-time residents I know have told me they don’t want to buy a home in a suburban-style subdivision. Typically, they want a country home on a country road that looks like it was put there by accident. BTW, that’s also what local real estate brokers have consistently told me, so this is not just conjecture."
Terry's point that this is more hyperbole than reality is worth looking at more closely. It is true that the towns in the extreme Northwest Corner of Connecticut have not seen the dramatic, large unit subdivisions that have become routine further to our south and east. The market here is different, but the impact of the development we do see is still considerable. Consider that in 2002, the satellite imagery for farm and field land cover for this region showed more than 88,000 acres in this category across 27 towns. Using 2006 aerial photographs to digitally identify the actual agricultural lands shows just 43,000 acres. Much of the difference can be explained by looking at former farm fields that now have three houses in them and are no longer producing hay or corn. We've got a lot of that. Fragmenting farmland and forest habitat with long driveways and private homes is what rural sprawl looks like in these communities. We may be only 6- 8% impervious surface, but we sure have seen changes in land use that reflect profound changes in community character.
The problem is that all this makes for a difficult concept to convey in a sound bite or a 1/4 page political ad. In conveying urgency we sometimes create the impression that we are overstating our case - see the critique by some conservatives of global climate change predictions for a real-time example of this phenomenon. The specter of becoming "New Milford" frequently haunts the open space and conservation discussions in the far northwest corner of Connecticut, but New Milford style development is not the real threat for most of us. Development that disconnects us from the fields, forests and freshwater resources that sustain our ecology and make these towns highly desirable places to live (for those with the means to live here) is a significant challenge. The loss of viable rural economies makes for homogeneous places with aging populations and services that have to be provided by those who live well outside our communities. If you know how to convey all that in 30 seconds or on a paid advertisement, please let me know. I bet Larry Power would welcome that information, too.