A cautionary tale

The following is the prologue from the book Preserving Community Character by Alfred J. Lima, published in 2009, and reprinted here with permission. Lima will be speaking at the Bolton Public Library on September 14 at 7 p.m. References to Bolton, as well as other nearby towns, appear in the book. He swears, however, that the following story is purely hypothetical.

Photos added by me: the picture immediately below was taken for http://www.randomiowa.com; further down is Route 9 in Hadley, MA, site of a controversial commercial development.


The Story of Pleasantville

Not much had happened to Pleasantville during the last 100 years. It was an attractive farming community almost forgotten by time. It was sufficiently distant from the city that it seemed that it would remain that way for the foreseeable future. Gradually, the town began to change, but no one seemed to be paying attention. New homes began to be built on the town’s old country roads and farms began being converted into subdivisions.

However, when a new mall was proposed for the town, residents became alarmed. What town residents discovered was that urban sprawl had reached Pleasantville. Towns closer in to the city had become saturated with development and now new construction had leapfrogged into their community.

Pleasantville was surprised. This was not supposed to happen to them. They thought they were too far from the city for anyone to commute to their little town. Surprise soon turned into resignation that change was inevitable and that maybe it was good thing. Many persons in the town, including its elected officials, welcomed the new growth for the tax income it would realize and for the jobs that it would create.

A master plan had been prepared in the 1960’s, resulting in a zoning map that zoned all of the town for residential use except for a few industrial districts on sandy flat land and a generous business zone on either side of the state route that ran for several miles through the town.

Those persons who were concerned about what was happening to the identity of the town were frustrated by general public apathy and resignation and by the prevailing mores that a person can do whatever they want to with their land. Zoning codes and other land use regulations were occasionally revised and strengthened but on balance had little impact on the rate and intensity of development. On the other hand, whenever land acquisition initiatives were presented to the town, the community always claimed that it couldn’t afford to buy land and take it off the tax rolls and that, anyway, development was good for the town because it would bring in new tax revenues.

Whenever individuals tried to change the direction of the town, they encountered either opposition or little support and became demoralized and gave up. Not enough people seemed to care and, when they did care, didn’t know what to do. The Planning Board always seemed to be too busy reviewing and approving subdivision plans to have any time to plan for the future and, as a group, seemed uninterested in taking on the task of long-range planning.

As the years progressed, Pleasantville—as everyone knew it—gradually disappeared. Within 30 years, the small village progressively became absorbed into the undistinguished suburbanization and commercial franchising that had overwhelmed most communities in the region. The state route became one long commercial strip, and the scenic fields on the town’s other roads became subdivisions. The town’s center gradually died with the appearance of more and more franchise stores in strip malls.

Development did bring in new revenue, but that new revenue was offset by new expenses resulting from the need to build and operate new schools and hire new police, fire, and public works personnel. To pay for all of this, property taxes kept on increasing, and the more taxes increased, the more public officials insisted that additional development was needed to pay for the costs of yesterday’s development.

Water shortages became chronic as all available aquifers were developed. No one had expected that when the flat sandy part of town was zoned for industrial purposes, it was the town’s most valuable aquifer and now, because of industrial development, was not suitable for municipal wells. Environmental degradation and the replacement of vegetative cover with ever-more pavement and roof area resulted in increased stormwater runoff and therefore increased flooding. Because of the extent of new development, traffic congestion became a daily, frustrating reality.

Few residents now enjoyed the specter of progress and a growing number of persons lamented the disappearance of the attractive town that they had grown up in or moved into. Many asked why something hadn’t been done to save the town they had once known and loved.

Pleasantville had never taken the time to ask itself where it wanted to go as a community and what it wanted to be in the future. It never developed a sense of direction for itself, and it never had the benefit of committed individuals to implement that direction. It just muddled through and allowed itself to be destroyed.

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