Losing Land

by Anthony Costello

Whenever a new development is announced, we can expect a flood of questions from abutters and others who’ve always enjoyed the scenic qualities of the place where new buildings are planned. They usually want to know “How can it be stopped?”

Most of the undeveloped land in the town that is not owned by the MDC or the City of Worcester for watershed protection is privately owned. People bought land because they thought it might be a good place to build a house, or to farm, or as a wood lot, and a few bought it as an investment.

Very few people buying land before World War II anticipated today’s home building boom, and most of them kept it to leave to their heirs. Sometimes their children value the land for its own sake, and have kept it in its natural state, but as times change and the land becomes increasingly valuable, many decide to sell.

This is any landowner’s right, and no one, not even the State or the Town, can prevent an owner from selling. In this way much land passes to developers. In turn, the developer, owning the land, has the right to develop it, although he has to comply with some restrictions. The town planning committee reviews the plans to ensure that town bylaws regarding zoning and road layout are followed.

The developer has to comply with State and Federal regulations about drainage and wetlands, since water supplies, including underground water, have to be protected.  This includes plans for disposing of storm water, since the run off from developed land  is faster.

The State has legislation to protect the habitats of endangered species, which are mapped by Natural Heritage under the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, though commoner animals and plants, which are less particular about habitat, do not need protection.

If a developer’s plans comply with all regulations, and do not harm watersheds or protected wildlife, there is no way development can be stopped.  It may be delayed if the town has put a limit to the number of new houses that may be built in a year, as Holden has done, but so long as the developer has the financial ability to proceed, eventually the houses will be built.

Sadly, this is to the town’s disadvantage. On average the tax revenue from a new house is less than the cost of the additional services that are needed. By far the biggest cost is for education, which is why many towns have looked more favorably on housing for the elderly, whose service needs are less expensive for the town.

So the answer to stopping development is not to throw metaphorical bricks at the developers, but to make sure land is protected before it is sold. We can not do anything to prevent a landowner with a suitable plot of land selling, if the landowner wishes to get the best possible price.  Nor can we stop a legitimate developer from building, unless the developer is willing to sell, and the money can be raised.

We can help a landowner to come up with a plan that will preserve the land, and give tax advantages that may give a comparable financial outcome. Every one who knows an owner of land that is worth protecting can help by introducing the notion of saving it intact, for future generations to enjoy. Your board members can help with the details.

Anthony  Costello is a White Oak Board member, as well as a member of Holden’s Conservation Commission.