Posting the Town Limits

FOR the past several months, residents of Dedham, Mass., have sported buttons and bumper stickers bearing an ominous slogan: "Don't Let Dedham Get Malled." The message serves as a warning against a proposed $140 million shopping mall designed to occupy 108 wooded acres in a residential section of town.

Developers promised three department stores. They promised employment - up to 700 construction jobs and 1,800 retail positions. And they promised an estimated annual tax revenue to the town of $1.8 million.

But these promises failed to impress residents, who saw clouds rather than silver linings. A public hearing last month drew 500 people - a turnout developers described as unprecedented. Again and again during the nearly five-hour event, the words "quality of life" echoed through the auditorium. "Preserve and protect the quality of life in our town," urged one opponent. "Give us peace and quiet," pleaded another. "Let us enjoy the trees and the open spaces and the grasses."

Not so many years ago, the prospect of a new shopping mall, especially one billed as "upscale" and "very unique," would have been greeted with a measure of enthusiasm. Even now, "Let's go to the mall" remains one of the great American rallying cries.

But this is the '90s, not the '70s or '80s. A new mood of "Enough!" appears to be spreading, and not just in Dedham. How many communities need more traffic jams and six-lane highways? Who needs acres of asphalt for 18,882 more parking places? And who needs more crime? As the Dedham police chief told the assembled crowd, "Make no mistake. A mall is a crime hazard. The mall may be upscale, but I assure you the thieves aren't."

Five days before town-meeting members were scheduled to vote on rezoning land for the Dedham Common mall last week, Homart Development Inc. abruptly pulled out, avoiding certain defeat. Although developers have vowed that "Homart is not going away," the town's victory signals a welcome recognition that growth does not always represent progress.

Officials in neighboring Needham, Mass., have sent similar anti-rezoning messages to businesses in recent years. In one case, developers were forced to demolish the top floor of a new three-story office building because a zoning bylaw allows only two-story structures near the town hall. Last year a nursery was forced to close because it violated a bylaw stating that agricultural nurseries require at least 2 1/2 acres. When the owners sold two lots for housing construction, they reduced their land to less

than two acres. Neighbors complained about noise, and the Board of Appeals issued a shutdown order.

The cases in point, far from life-threatening to these communities, still say something about the wary care Americans are beginning to show for their environment. With the famous catastrophes of Chernobyl, the Alaskan oil spill, and now the new punctures in the ozone layer, the most ordinary citizens have been educated to appreciate the fragile balances affecting the world about them. What is done to change the face of the earth, including malls, can be nearly irreversible.

It is too late to turn back some forms of development, such as the high-rise condominiums that form a stucco wall along parts of the Florida coast. It is not too late to send other strong messages about over-development. The future is now.

True, some of the opposition still arises as another self-interested instance of "not in my backyard, you don't." The concept of zoning will always carry exclusionary overtones. But the incanting of "quality of life" also expresses genuine concern - a feeling that, on the local as well as the global level, citizens are responsible from now on for the world they and their children get. In fact, one reason Americans may be raging against politics at the top is that they themselves are practicing citizenshi p at the local level with impressive, often scrupulous care. Who knows? Eventually this ideal of stewardship may catch on even in Washington.

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