What does it mean for a town government to be proactive?
On the one hand it would appear to make some obvious sense. A proactive government is a government that thinks and plans ahead to avoid problems before they happen – these problems can be fiscal, environmental, demographic.
We know that the century-old lift bridge across the Connecticut River will need replacing. We know that as the Baby Boom retires, and many young people are attracted to cities, we need to plan for an aging population. The next big storm is not a question of if, but when.
In the case of emerald ash borers, a few days ago the Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder and the Board of Finance conferred with the tree warden to consider whether the town budget for taking down trees was sufficient to cope with the inevitable die-off of ash trees in the area.
When you look ahead and you see an obstacle in the road, you prepare for it. That’s common sense and good government. It’s a simple matter of prudence.
But the reality is that many problems aren’t inevitable — they are probable, possible, even unlikely – and in each case good government requires an honest appraisal of the threat at hand and a slightly different calculus.
In the case of sewers and Sound View – something that Merv Roberts (no environmental slouch) fought for decades to prevent – the town was significantly ahead of the curve, hop-skipping over a statewide study by DEEP, planning instead for a community septic solution, which when turned down, obligated Old Lyme to another solution, which the town decided was sewers.
In this case, Old Lyme is actually far enough ahead of the curve that they are having trouble finding a recent precedent anywhere in the state for how to fund them.
Was the town responding to an honest appraisal of the threats? Was the town prudent?
What’s clear is that at least a few of the problems the town faced – the loss of Clean Water Funds and legal action by the state – were at best exaggerations. And the environmental concerns, which are well-founded, may simply replace the pollution of effluent with the pollution of runoff and over-development.
Similarly, in the case of Halls Road, I have yet to meet anyone in the town who doubts that the business district can be improved. But I fret that the actual motive force behind the project — the threatened loss of supermarket and other businesses — is more the conjuring of town officials than the actual businesses.
And in endeavoring to meet these conjured threats, have we set ourselves on a course which values more what some wish to have, than what we already have, and why many of us moved to Old Lyme in the first place?
Is planning an effort on Halls Road which would require funding and installing sewers, and inevitably raising the rents of loved and and longtime local businesses, prudent?
No doubt, it’s a fine line, but at a certain point what appears proactive, may rather simply be playing for a loss — assuredly sacrificing what we have and love, for fear of what may possibly be.
Case in point for Old Lyme is the town’s current trajectory on affordable housing.
For nearly a year the town has been meeting off and on with a handful of residents, planning a committee on affordable housing, and soliciting the names of possible members to join in.
At a recent Board of Selectmen meeting, the handpicked point person for the effort described the problem like this:
in order to achieve the target of 10% to qualify for exemption from 8-30g, approximately 470 additional affordable housing units will need to be developed at least, or more depending on the growth of non-affordable units. That alone represents a significant amount of development. However, when considering the fact that only 30% of the units in a given housing development need to be reserved as affordable in order to qualify for treatment under 8-30g, the total number of housing units that would potentially need to be developed in order to meet the 10% threshold could increase greatly, to over 1500 in a worst case scenario.
Take a moment and consider that.
Here we have a proactive argument that tallies a “worst case scenario” of such scale — the equivalent of 45 housing developments each the size of the planned Hope Partnership development at Exit 70 — that the proposed solution, a little over 12 housing developments of similar size (or a few rather large ones) in a small town is offered as prudence, and the very minimum.
But is it really?
Are the only economically viable and morally just solutions the ones that require developing away small historic towns like Old Lyme?
Note that this editorial has been edited to make clear that the tree warden conferred with both the Board of Finance and First Selectwoman Reemsnyder on the issue of emerald ash borers, but that there was no formal meeting of the boards on the issue.