A Developers Nightmare

There are any number of nightmares that disturb the average developer’s sleep: an environmentalist with a lawsuit; an unscrupulous partner with connections to the Cayman Islands; a crash-course familiarity with Chapter 11 bankruptcy law.

Less terrifying but still unsettling: an appearance in front of a Massachusetts town meeting. Put 200 people in a room with uncomfortable chairs, add a vocal group of neighborhood activists, mix in the traditional bias against change and you have the potential for governmental decision-making that is decidedly unfavorable to the interests of commercial developers.

In some places, town meetings can be a brake on development; in others, a roadblock.

Especially to a developer based outside the region, the New England town meeting can be a factor that adds too much uncertainty to a decision about whether to pursue a project. “It’s a scary thing,” admits William E. Houser, a real estate securities portfolio manager for New York-based Athena Group who quietly eyed a huge parcel of undeveloped land in Plymouth two years ago. Development plans were held up for years by the Plymouth town meeting.

“What I saw in Plymouth was sort of a first in its kind,” Mr. Houser says. “The process was foreign and unique to me.”

Not many developers are willing to publicly criticize the town meeting process, yet it’s no stretch to imagine that the slow-grinding wheels of local democratic participation do not sit well with the business preference for speed and efficiency. “It’s a simple equation of having to educate and persuade a much greater number of people,” says Bill Swiacki, of Potomac Sports Properties, of McLean, Va. “It makes it a higher hurdle.”

Mr. Swiacki’s company builds golf courses and has also watched with interest Plymouth’s struggle with the re-zoning of a five-square-mile parcel of land formerly owned by Digital Equipment Corp. Having grown up in Sturbridge, Mr. Swiacki admits to having some attachment to the traditional activism represented by a town meeting at its best. But he adds, “It’s a process that can easily fall into an emotional debate, rather than an objective, reasonable approach.”

A mix of residential and commercial development is planned for
land formerly owned by Digital. The parcel is said to be one of the
largest single blocks of available land on the East Coast.

But don’t tell Christopher Walsh that it’s too much trouble to “educate” town meeting participants. Walsh is a citizen-activist who has been vocal over the years in Framingham’s town meeting. “Some of us feel the same way in the opposite direction,” he says. “When you have to educate a businessperson that being able to cross a street in front of my house is just as important to me as how low my taxes are, that there is something called quality of life….” Mr. Walsh trails off.

Mr. Walsh, an architect who is also President of the Framingham Historical Society, is exactly the kind of town meeting speaker who can give developers a headache. He argues against the kind of “super-heated growth” that has made the Route 9 corridor in Framingham a traffic-congested zone of strip malls and chain stores. He disputes the very idea that towns need a constant stream of new development.

Mr. Walsh also contests the notion that town meetings provide serious resistance to business demands. He argued strenuously several years ago against a proposal backed by Bose, Inc., one of the town’s most important corporate citizens, to change an industrial park into an office park. But Bose easily carried the day, partly due to memories in Framingham of the job-depleting closure of the General Motors manufacturing plant in 1991.

“That in essence is the problem — you can’t bring up questions if the other side says ‘We’re either here, or we’re gone,’ ” Mr. Walsh says. “They’re not interested in anything that doesn’t concur with their previous thinking.”

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
In a working-class community such as Framingham, concern for jobs and low taxes may more easily carry the day. Slow-growth advocates usually have more success in affluent towns. In Westford, residents decisively repelled attempts to build a Wal-Mart in 1993. Westford’s open town meeting voted in February 1996 to approve a bylaw prohibiting retail buildings larger than 60,000 square feet.

Of course, it doesn’t always take a town meeting to turn back unwanted development. Greenfield, which has a board of selectmen and a 27-member town council, rebuffed a Wal-Mart in 1993 by a referendum vote — even though the selectmen and the council had given the plans the green light.

In Plymouth, the redevelopment of the huge Digital parcel finally won town meeting approval last fall. “The process has been long, it has been arduous — it took us four town meetings,” says Tom Wallace, one of the partners in a group that plans homes, stores, and golf courses on the land. Mr. Wallace concedes that in business “expediency is preferable,” but adds that when a company is proposing a major development “you really want the majority of the town to know it, to understand it, to welcome it.”