You’re EPA – Stop This Development!

I can’t count the number of times I have gotten a phone call or email from citizens concerned about a development planned for their town. It usually goes something like this.

“I live in ____ town. There’s this developer who wants to put a big box store / condos / hundreds of houses / gas station on land that’s now a woods / wetland. I’m concerned about runoff / traffic / noise / the loss of habitat for wildlife / how ugly it will be. Can you make them stop?”

The answer I usually give (unless it concerns building in a wetland) is, “No, sorry, but we can’t help you. Development is a local issue. Contact your local government.”

And, they usually respond, “I already have and they won’t do anything.”

I know how frustrating this can be since I’ve experienced it myself. In my town we now have a big box drugstore where a small nursery used to be. At one of the meetings discussing the proposed development I brought up the fact that since much of the land that was now pervious soil would become impervious, runoff would be a major concern. The answer I got from one of my elected officials was that since any runoff would go across the street into the next municipality, we didn’t have to worry about it!

And, just over the line from my town’s border is a wonderful chunk of land, an old estate with a mansion and deer, possum, red fox, and chipmunks. I had suggested many years ago that my municipality work with the other municipality and use available Open Space funding to protect the land. The answer I received was that we would never spend our money to protect land not in our jurisdiction. Subsequently, the elderly man who owned the property died, then his second wife died, and now her kids want to build hundreds of apartments there. The matter is now in court with my municipality trying to stop the owners.

So, I feel your pain. From my personal experiences and from hearing about yours I have learned a few things that may help others.

It is very important to act before anything is in the works. Be proactive.

Look at your local zoning laws/ordinances. What do they allow? Then do a “Build Out Analysis” – look at every parcel of land and figure out what it could become if it was developed under the full extent of the law. My guess is you’ll find quite a number of surprises, like restaurants in residential areas that could become nightclubs and homes that could become frat houses. Don’t believe it when someone tells you, “That will never happen” because if it can legally, it may.

Then envision the future with the various options for your “at risk” places. Standing there, looking at each property and then closing your eyes envisioning changes might help. Even better would be a graphics person who could mock up what your town could look like from the worst case to the best case.

Then survey your neighbors. What are their “sacred places”? Places that are important to them and help define your community. These might include an old movie theater, a train station circle, a woods and stream, church bells at noon, even the scent of donuts coming from a local bakery in the morning.

Find out about financial incentives, such as tax breaks, for conserving or not fully developing land. Are there grant programs that might have money? Could a “life estate” be set up so that the current property owner could stay on the property until his/her death, possibly avoiding paying real estate taxes and upkeep expenses during that time? Good places to look for information are your local land conservation organization and your county planning agency.

Once you have all your facts, and not before, approach those who own the properties. Then educate, educate, educate. Many people do not understand the environmental and economic implications of changing land use. And, you may not be the best person to do this education. Maybe a local non-profit or teacher might have more success.

Try to understand where the other person is coming from. What’s their motivation? What do they want for the future? Are they willing to work with you? You won’t get what you want all the time, but by being proactive you’ll have a better chance than if you wait.

About the Author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. She currently manages the web for the Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division. Before getting involved with the web, she worked as an environmental scientist. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created.