Townsfolk Weigh Land Options

MANY US communities feel caught in a tug of war between the desire to grow and the wish to preserve the best of what they have. It is a land-use dilemma fueled by growing citizen concern over quality-of-life issues ranging from wetland protection to drinking-water purity.

Unlike Europe, where national land-use plans often resolve such problems, the United States relies heavily on local citizens for answers. In some cases the citizen debate over how to strike the best balance between landowner rights and perceived public needs has been long and bitter.

Consider Cedar Swamp, one of this state's largest wetlands and a haunt of the rare yellow spotted turtle. In Westborough, Mass., where most of the wetlands lie, voters were divided enough on the issue to approve new limits on land development there in March and then retract them July 16 during a special second town meeting. Spurring the limits were the proposed expansion of a rail transfer facility in the swamp and long-term development proposals by other landowners.

``I don't think there's any question that as the US gets more crowded, we're going to demand more of one another as neighbors,'' says Jay Copeland, an environmental reviewer with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

The land crunch is particularly acute in the heavily settled Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.

``The pressures to develop around major urban areas are phenomenal - often wetlands are the only cheap remaining land around,'' notes Hope Babcock, general counsel for the National Audubon Society.

She says coastal areas near urban centers, such as those in Delaware and Maryland, face a tough choice between preserving environmental assets that attract visitors and using the assets to accommodate them by building homes and condos. Choosing can be tough. ``I see a tremendous growth in what I would call small conflicts at the local level,'' says Ms. Babcock.

``People have become very sensitive to changes happening around them and have discovered they can take political action and really make it stick,'' says Douglas Porter, director of development policy for the Urban Land Institute. ``There are lots of tools around these days to limit growth, and they're being used more and more.''

Concerned that proposed development of valuable watershed land in corporately owned Sterling Forest might adversely affect its drinking-water supplies, Passaic County, N.J., recently seized the land by a legal device called a ``quick taking.''

Many communities express their new environmental concerns in zoning decisions.

``You're beginning to see lines drawn around certain areas where at least one segment of the community says, `hands off,' '' says Mr. Copeland.

That voters in Westborough, a community within an hour's drive of Boston, this month retracted their March decision is viewed by environmentalists as disappointing but not surprising. ``A very small group of landowners overreacted, misrepresenting the impact the earlier decision would have had - it stirred up a lot of rancor,'' says Whitney Beals, associate director of the Sudbury Valley Trustees, a nonprofit land conservation group. The need, he says, is to recognize that some areas are not appropriate to support growth.

Jeff Richards, assistant to the Westborough planning board, says compromise is still possible. ``We've seen the pendulum swing between the two extremes - now we need to find a balance.''

In many cases, particularly when the US real estate market was stronger, towns have opted for moratoriums of one or two years. Sometimes communities want to be sure their sewage and water facilities can handle more growth.

Some solutions are imaginative: Rather than hooking up to a regional sewage system that would have encouraged rapid growth, Arcata, Calif., built a local waste-treatment facility that doubles as a park and wildlife sanctuary.

Sometimes, as in a recent two-year moratorium in Groton, Mass., a town wants to assess existing laws. ``We're trying to find a way to establish regulations that allow growth but still protect our resources,'' says Michelle Colletti, assistant to the town planning board.

Local governments need not make all the decisions. State and federal legislation and public land purchases address many of the more pressing environmental land concerns.

Private nonprofit groups such as the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, and more than 850 local land trusts around the country also buy or are given environmentally valuable land or development rights. Yet only a small percentage of the nation's most sensitive land is protected in the process.

Many states want cities and towns to take a more active role in development decisions.

``Both the legislatures and the courts over the years have given cities and towns more and more control,'' says Copeland.

In addition to continuing grants to cities and towns to acquire land surrounding aquifers, for instance, Massachusetts intends to step up technical assistance to local governments to help them find other more cost effective ways of resolving environmental problems. Kathy Abbott, a deputy commissioner with the state's department of environmental management, says: ``Regulations need to get tighter and tougher at the local level. ... That's what the state is going to be supporting more and more.''

Joseph Larson, director of the Environmental Institute at the University of Massachusetts, predicts more local restrictions as environmental awareness grows:

``We're beginning to see more and more communities say, `Wait a minute - do we really want to allow subdivisions [of new homes] with septic systems to go on the aquifer recharge site for our municipal water supply?' They're going to decide certain kinds of activities are allowable on such sites and certain kinds aren't.''

The need will continue for what Babcock calls a mixed bag of tools at every level of government. Local action, after all, extends only as far as the city limits and often requires repetition.

``These things usually have to be fought over and over again - nobody can say `no' forever,'' says Rasa Gustaitis, consultant to the California Coastal Conservency.

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