Green Haven's Utopian Tomfoolery
As read to the Planning and Zoning Commission Wednesday night:
My name is Norm Pattis. I live in Bethany, and I also own Whitlock Farm Booksellers, located at 20 Sperry Road. I have lived in Bethany with my wife for the past ten years. I am a newcomer, still falling in love with what Bethany has to offer.
I cannot be with you tonight because I am with my wife visiting two of my children who live in Seattle. I can assure you they did not leave Bethany because they could not find low-cost housing. They wanted what Bethany could not offer: Big city life, with the infrastructure and opportunities that affords.
Had they opted for something a little less congested than Seattle, they could just as easily have found an apartment or condominium unit in New Haven, Hamden, Ansonia or Naugatuck, towns an easy ten-minute drive from here. What they would have found difficulty finding is what opponents of Green Haven seek to protect: open space.
I don’t doubt for a moment that folks seeking to establish Green Haven mean well, but I reject the aura of inevitability that they rely upon. It may be that Bethany will ultimately succumb to population pressure and become yet another dismal piece of the Bos-Wash corridor -- it certainly will take a big step in that direction if we permit Green Haven’s naive dream to become a reality. But with effort, we can preserve the way of life so many townspeople have turned out to support, a life rural in character, with open space, and a commitment small-town values.
I noted with a sense of disappointment the iron fist that Green Haven now extends as a hand of friendship. They’ve fired their prior lawyers and hired Shipman and Goodwin, the very firm that took to the courts almost a decade ago to challenge this board’s decision to reject the application of another developer to build high-density housing at the Halter farm property. The message? Give us what we want or we will return to court and try to force ourselves on you. One would have thought the decisive rejection of Green Haven’s proposal just last year would have sent a message. It did not.
Instead, opponents are accused of playing fast and loose with the facts.
But who is playing games with the truth?
Green Haven’s war of words revolves around a species of fear-mongering. If the town does not approve its application, then something worse will occur. One supporter told you at our last meeting another developer is waiting in the wings, with a development plan calling for even more units than Green Haven proposes. Really? Who is that? What a silly bogey man to throw in our faces, as though we are children.
The fact is that despite earlier court action, the Halter farm property has not been developed because the nature of the land, and what is required to build there, do not support the sort of high-density development Green Haven tries to tell us will occur. Had such development been profitable and inevitable, it would have occurred long ago. Don’t be bullied by the threat of a straw man. It’s a silly argument.
Green Haven’s proposed condominium association has all the promise of a new marriage: some 31 families will join together in a co-housing enterprise, clustering their homes together in a beehive of goodwill, with a commitment to using a significant portion of the open space for organic farming. They told you, or one of their paid consultants told you, the farm will operate with such good taste that even its compost won’t stink. Really?
Green Haven sugarcoats its condominium project in promises that it will create an almost utopian village of folks devoted to the very rural values opponents of the project support. It will farm the land -- organic, of course; space will remain open; it will be family centered, offering housing for young and old. Listening to Green Haven enthuse about its project is uncannily like listening to newlyweds plan their future: love will show the way over the twists and turns ahead. Maybe. Or maybe there will be a nasty divorce in the future. After all, Green Haven proposes no ordinary marriage. It seeks to unite 31 families!
It will do all this under the cloak of condominium association bylaws that are not part of the development plan. Give us permission to build first, then we will show how it will all work later. That is not a gamble you should accept. Opponents of Green Haven are, in fact, urging you to reject this gamble.
What we’ve been able to glean from the record thus far is that some 31families will reside together in close proximity to one another. Rules will govern where they can park their cars and when; presumably other rules will govern how units are to be maintained. The 31 families will operate a farm by consensus, each family contributing $50 a month to the upkeep of an active farm. Those of us who are actively involved with management of our own land know that this is a pipe dream. You don’t pay for a tractor, the upkeep of buildings, vet bills, and seed, fence and the thousand and one expenses of operating a small farm with $1,500 a month.
And will 31 families operate a farm -- something it appears none of them have ever really done -- by consensus? What happens the first time there is no agreement, a year or so down the line when the excitement of this new experiment wears a little thin? Will dissenters be asked to leave? If they don’t pay their association fees, what happens?
Economists speak of something known as the tragedy of the commons. Properties owned by all are subject to the predations of free-riders, folks who don’t contribute. Get enough free-riders, and soon, others refuse to cooperate -- why give your neighbor a free pass in the name of a collective vision? Soon enough, the commons are neglected, becoming an eyesore. Consider the fate of many housing projects build in the 1960s. They are heaps of concrete today.
It’s easy to come to a town meeting and to create a parody of communal harmony with consultants all paid to enthuse on cue. It’s too easy. I’ve watched Green Haven talk about the paradise it wants to create in my backyard with a growing sense of concern. Candidly, I’d rather have more units with folks actually committed to maintaining their own property than I would fewer units operating under a woolly-minded commitment to the good, true and beautiful.
Green Haven also contends that this new application does not open the door to development elsewhere in town. Its new lawyer displayed its application on an overhead projection, and told us to look at it. See, he said, it says right there in black and white that it is for this project only.
Remove a clause from the application, and insert the name of the next development project to come waltzing into town. Don’t be surprised to see lawyers from Shipman and Goodwin in town with that new project, too, although this time here is what they will be saying: You approved an application identical in form and content last time with respect to Green Haven. If you reject this new project, a court could well find that you have done so for improper motives.
It’s just a different form of the same threat they are using this time.
Precedent matters in the law. We have no condominium development in town under the proposed new district Green Haven asks for. Make Green Haven’s utopian dream come true with this project, and then be ready, and soon, for the next proposal.
When my wife and I chose to buy our home in Bethany we did so because of the town’s rural character. We lived in New Haven, a city we still like, but we are not city people. It never occurred to us to live in Hamden, or in Naugatuck, or in Ansonia. We could just as easily have purchased a home in those communities -- all are an easy commute from our professional responsibilities.
As I have listened to the public comments on Green Haven I hear a similar commitment to small-town, rural values from many neighbors whom I have never met. I am happy to live in a community of these people. I did not choose Bethany because I thought its land an inexpensive place to engage in social experiments. I chose Bethany because it is quiet, it is rural and it is lovely.
Do I want the world to know that Bethany is an example of “snob zoning”? Not really. That’s not how I think of what we have here. But I care less about what National Public Radio broadcasters think of me and our town than I do about the quality of life here. Green Haven is a trojan horse. Welcoming it here will be but the first of many developments to come. Within a decade or less the town will be transformed, a seamless piece with our neighbors to the North, South, East and West.
If I had thought that was inevitable, I would never have moved here.
Green Haven is not inevitable. You can say no. We will support you. If that takes a legal battle, so be it.
Please keep Bethany a quiet, rural and lovely place.
Green Haven can find another laboratory.
NOTE: Don't take my word for it. Read a little history to understand why Green Haven's promise is little more than naive gibberish: