The good-neighbor folks of Green Haven are back, this time with new lawyers, a scaled-down version of paradise, and even a Johnny Appleseed impersonator. At a recent public meeting before the Bethany Planning and Zoning Commission, their consultants and lawyer enthused about how good co-housing would be for the town. Their message was clear: either give us what we want, or we will take you to court and force ourselves upon you. They even resorted to half-truths and cheap rhetorical tricks.
Last year, Green Haven was sent packing by the commission when their application to build a condominium project on the Halter Farm property was rejected amid fears that its application was but a Trojan Horse that would invite developers into town. Townspeople turned out at the next municipal election to oust Green Haven supporters from office.
One would have thought this would be a slap even Green Haven could feel: We don’t want condominiums in town. But Green Haven merely retooled, firing its prior lawyers, and hiring a large Hartford firm, Shipman and Goodwin, to try all over again. They let it be known that this is the same firm that beat the town years ago, transforming the Halter Farms property into a parcel that could become the site of high occupancy dwelling units. One ardent convert to Green Haven’s cause with a child-like love of visual aids posted placards with a dollar sign and a big number as she spoke to try to frighten folks. (Message to townsfolk: We will spare no expense to get what we want.) Just who is backing Green Haven, anyhow?
Shipman and Goodwin is far from invincible. No competent lawyer in Connecticut shudders at the mention of their name.
The lawyer Shipman sent to announce its new fee-generating offensive tried to play townspeople for fools. “We’re back,” he all but leered, a slicked down version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. “Look,” he said, pointing at a display of their application, “this application is limited only to Green Haven.” What he didn’t tell townspeople is that the terms of limitation to which he pointed can easily be removed, and a new term inserted to cover a new project, for the very next developer. Don’t be played for a fool.
The next thrust was the classic straw man move. If we don’t let Green Haven build, then something worse will occur. One portly Green Haven supporter even told people that there is, gasp, another developer in the wings, waiting to force something far worse than Green Haven upon the town. No one called her bluff, so I’ll do it now. “Who?”
While a prior court ruling might well authorize the construction of high density housing on the Halter Farm property, the fact is that no developer has thus far come forward with a cost-effective plan to do so. There is no one waiting in the wings to build the sort of menacing development that would make Green Haven look like a sound alternative. Green Haven is promising to rescue the town from a non-existent threat.
Things turned humorous at the meeting when an ardent young paid consultant took the podium to enthuse about organic acorns, livestock and, wonder of wonders, compost and animal waste-disposal in which even feces don’t stink. Integral to Green Haven’s public face is a sort of newlywed rapture about the joyous future to come: some 30-plus families will congregate, live together, farm the land, park their cars, co-exist without the ordinary stresses and strains of daily living. Really?
This utopian vision of co-housing’s promise is the project’s fatal flaw. The bylaws of the condominium project have not been submitted as part of the plan. What we’re asked to do is approve a physical infrastructure fundamentally changing the character of the town and then take it on trust that everything will be just peaches and cream because a spirit of love and good will animates the project. Such naivete will come at the cost of Bethany’s rural character.
Economists speak of the “tragedy of the commons.” What belongs to all often, in fact, belongs to no one. Free-riders take advantage of the work of others. Soon, divisions separate folks and the common vision that in theory unites all gives rise to the everyday sort of chaos that undermines the welfare of the group. A perfect example of this is the squalor that became of many urban housing projects constructed in the 1960s: In theory, occupants were supposed to be wed together by a sense that common purpose benefitted all. In fact, the units are now expensive, and often dangerous, eyesores, where they have not been torn down and abandoned altogether.
Green Haven wants permission to change the character of life in Bethany. Its backers promise cluster housing but in a rural setting. They’ll restore farmland, plant organic produce, raise lifestock -- all in a spirit of peace and harmony. Green Haven will make it possible for young and old to live together in harmony, all cheek by jowl on a 30-acre parcel just this side of paradise. What they don’t tell you is that to the North, the South, the East and the West, there is cluster housing for kids and grandparents alike -- New Haven, Hamden, Naugatuck, Ansonia all are minutes away from Bethany. What the region lacks isn’t cluster housing, but open space.
The most humorous note in the recent public meeting came when one earnest soul told the group she’d heard the controversy about Green Haven reported on National Public Radio as an example of “snob zoning.” “Is this how we want Bethany to be known,” she started to say. She looked puzzled when most in the room said that is precisely what they wanted.
The fact is, many town residents came to Bethany because they wanted a rural lifestyle. They’ve worked hard to acquire their properties and to maintain them. They have every right to feel threatened by Green Haven, and every right to muster themselves for a fight.