To the Editor: Williamstowners are asking a lot of questions about the Affordable Housing Trust’s (AHT) proposals to build more housing on town-owned property. But on the question of how to consider the recent AHT proposal to build on town land officially designated as "conservation land," the discussion is particularly murky, fragmented and often ill-informed.
Proponents argue that building on open, clean space would be cheaper and simpler than tearing down and detoxifying present building sites. Opponents argue that building on conservation land destroys its potential for agriculture, as in the AHT proposal to take the Lowry property out of conservation. This, opponents argue, takes away the livelihood of farmers using the land for haying.
However, there is a larger defense for preserving conservation land.
The purpose of setting aside conservation land in this town has been stated by the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation: "to conserve the rural character of Williamstown; to enable working landscapes such as forests and farms; to promote land stewardship; and to connect the community to the region’s natural heritage."
At the state level, Gov. Deval Patrick, in August, 2012, in announcing his administration "protected more than 100,000 acres of open space in just five and a half years ... in over 310 communities," focused on three strategies: building parks in urban communities, preserving working farms and forests, and conserving high value habitat areas."
State Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan praised this as an example of big thinking about the quality of life in the state, among a wide diversity of interest groups.
This is the kind of cooperative discussion we should be having on the question of using conservation land for housing. We should be discussing the need to preserve a quality of life that connects us to our past and to the natural world. We can’t just pave over and build on conservation land with impunity.
Someone recently remarked to me, angrily, "We have too much conservation land in this town!" I wonder what measure she was using in determining this. But I do know how much it matters that we can look up to mountain tops and green spaces that we need to share harmoniously with animals, and trees and grasses.
As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass argued in 1972, in Sierra Club vs. Morton: "Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes ...
The ordinary corporation is a ‘person’ for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes. So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. Before these priceless bits of Americana (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, a river, or a lake) are forever lost or are so transformed as to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our urban environment, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard."
We are the beneficiaries of those wonders and need to be their advocates.