Prowse Farm was fertile turf for business-environmental compromise

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has few friends within leadership ranks of the business community. Captains of industry across the commonwealth, particularly those from high-technology companies, are simply unconvinced of the governor's commitment to growth of the state's economy.

This situation has not been an asset to Codex Corporation during its battle to build its world headquarters on a former horse farm in Canton.

All other things being equal, the conspicuous thinness of Dukakis support in business circles could have made it easier for the governor to side with those who want the entire 55-acre tract kept for conservation purposes. His decision to go along with the Codex project, even with tightened restrictions, may cost him political backing among some of the environmental activists.

Yet the governor had no real choice but to work for a compromise - one that might satisfy neither Codex nor those who want the entire site to be used for agricultural purposes.

The latter option is impossible, practically speaking, because construction of the three-story brick office building is well under way, and the cost of reversing what has been done would be prohibitive. More important, it may invite years of litigation and could put a chill on state efforts to encourage growing businesses to expand in the Bay State.

Codex officials cannot be faulted for their desire to situate their corporate headquarters in an attractive setting, close to two main highways (Routes 128 and 138) and in the shadow of Big Blue Hill. The company paid more than $1 million for the tract in 1977 and successfully lobbied its rezoning for industrial purposes through the Canton town meeting.

To get the green light for the project from Canton, the company agreed to build on a small portion of the site and to restore the rest as a horse farm, including the preservation of existing structures.

Critics of the project, including State Sen. Joseph F. Timilty (D) of Canton, contend the company has not followed through on its promises to save certain structures. This is vehemently denied by Codex president James Storey.

Codex's decision to begin construction before clearing the final legal hurdle was a mistake. Codex, a subsidiary of Motorola Corporation, had the authority to begin the project - but the Metropolitian District Commission (MDC) bid to take the land by eminent domain was still pending.

On May 21, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the MDC could indeed acquire Prowse Farm - a decision that must be viewed as a major victory for the Dukakis administration, because it forced Codex into negotiations with gubernatorial aides.

What emerged from these talks is a solid agreement imposing additional restrictions on use of the site - now and in the future. Monday's agreement includes:

* Permanent public access to the site through a state easement.

* A three-story limit on the Codex building and any future structures on the tract.

* Preservation of the undeveloped portions of the site and utilization of a large portion of the 55-acre farm for agriculture-related educational purposes.

* Codex commitment to focus future expansion in Bristol County, about 15 miles further south. The governor says the need for new jobs is especially critical in this area.

While the governor did not cave in to Codex, as some critics claim, he should have held out for more concessions from the company. These might have included an agreement by Codex to make major improvements to portions of the MDC-owned Blue Hills Reservation near Prowse Farm. Another might have been a partnership with the state for a museum of New England agriculture.

The state also needs a less fragile arrangement than the compact that has emerged. While the compact does spell out the restrictions on Codex, a statute is needed to prevent Codex - or any future owners - from changing the arrangement in the future, when a state administration may be less committed to the environment.

Unfortunately for those who would keep Prowse Farm as it was before Codex began the project, it is too late. And even if it were not, the MDC does not have the funds to acquire the farm, even by eminent domain. Land values everywhere, especially along Route 128, have increased dramatically since Codex bought the tract seven years ago.

The dispute over the future of Prowse Farm required an early and lasting resolution. While the agreement may jeopardize the commonwealth's reputation for being sensitive to environmental concerns, it shows a responsiveness to reasonable goals of an expanding, job-producing business community.

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