Liberals Clash At Walden Woods

Conservationists want to halt project that includes much-needed affordable housing units. ENVIRONMENT: VS. SOCIAL CAUSES

THE environmental movement of the 1990s has taken an odd twist here as conservationists fight plans to build a housing complex in Henry David Thoreau's historic Walden Woods. The ruckus is over low-cost housing as the 139-unit complex includes some affordable-housing units. In an unusual clash of liberal causes, environmentalists find themselves unwittingly pitted against affordable-housing advocates.

The issue gained considerable news media attention when Don Henley jumped into the fray. The rock singer and environmentalist staged two benefit concerts last week and raised $250,000 to buy the housing complex land and find an alternative site for the 42 affordable housing units.

``It seems absurd that the stomping grounds of the father of the environmental movement are not preserved,'' Mr. Henley said in telephone interview. Henley, who was an English major at North Texas State University, said his studies of Thoreau had a profound effect on his life.

He and celebrities Don Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, and Dana Delaney among others came to Boston last week and announced the fund-raising effort called the Walden Woods Project. In addition to the housing complex land, Henley aims to buy a proposed Walden Woods office site. The office park developer has donated $100,000 to the cause.

Henley says preserving the environment and providing affordable housing are two important goals that do not need to conflict.

``The two are not mutually exclusive,'' he says. ``I think that compromise is the answer.''

Town officials, who say both development projects had already received local approval, have remained neutral on the issue. But, according to town planner Judith Cutler, development on Walden Woods land is hardly new. Already situated on the 2,860-acre woodland site is a dump, a trailer park, and a number of single-family homes, she says. The famous Walden Pond, located within the woodland, has been a state-owned 300-acre national historic landmark since 1965. It was there that Thoreau lived from 1845 to 1847 and wrote the celebrated ``Walden.''

With about 40 percent of Walden Woods privately owned, Ms. Cutler wonders who is going to benefit from the move to stop development in the woodland. ``Who are we saving the environment for? Let's face it, it's got to be for people and that's all people, not just wealthy people,'' she says.

The development was seen by state officials as part of its zoning campaign to get more affordable housing into suburban communities. State Secretary of Communities and Development Amy Anthony was at first critical of the move to preserve the historic woodland, but has since decided to take on an advisory role in the Walden Woods Project. Her aim is to help find an alternative affordable housing site as quickly as possible.

Affordable housing advocates have accused Walden Woods preservationists of elitism and of the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) syndrome. They contend that the housing site is more than a half mile away from the famous Walden Pond.

Concord resident Mary Johnson, manager of a town gift shop, says Concord, like other suburban communities, needs to make an effort to provide affordable housing.

``I guess I'm for affordable housing and if it's done correctly, it's not going to hurt Walden Pond,'' she says.

The pond, which looks more like a lake, draws thousands of visitors each summer. On a hot afternoon last week, sun bathers, swimmers, picnickers, and boaters gravitated to the popular area west of Boston.

But Thoreau followers say Walden Pond is not enough. The vast woodland surrounding the pond is an essential element of Thoreau's legacy, says Thomas Blanding, a Thoreau scholar and president of the Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance.

``Walden Woods is really the area Thoreau wrote about,'' Mr. Blanding says. Blanding hopes to eventually have all of Walden Woods declared a national historic landmark.

Blanding questions the motive behind building the proposed housing development. The development was approved under the state's Home Ownership Opportunity Program. The program allows developers to build a greater number of units than allowed under local zoning laws if at least one third of the units are used for affordable housing. Blanding says the developer's motive was purely financial in choosing the mixed-income complex.

Thoreau, a writer and philosopher, was a student of Ralph Waldo Emerson. While he lived in Walden Woods, he studied nature and engaged in ``a spiritual quest turning to the woods,'' Blanding says.

``The principle of conservation was asserted here,'' says Blanding. ``It seems ironic that in [Thoreau's] own back yard he's been neglected.'' One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.

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