Can good come from lost open space?

This land that's been farmed for 300 years is slated for a massive residential and commercial development complex.

This land that's been farmed for 300 years is slated for a massive residential and commercial development complex.

An open space tragedy is brewing in my little town of Bethlehem.  A huge development is in the works for several scenic properties that have been farmed for nearly 300 years.

In the developer’s defense, the proposed complex is (zoning variances aside) in line with the town’s comprehensive plan.  Still, I hate to see historic farmland paved and lovely views spoiled.

On the plus side, open space advocates can turn this huge development (526 housing units plus 163,000 sq. ft. of commercial space, plus associated parking lots, etc.) into an opportunity.  And this opportunity exists for all land trusts and other open space supporters everywhere.

Most town and suburban folk really like undeveloped lands and beautiful views.  Most, however, are only peripherally aware of them – appreciating them briefly as they drive, bike, or walk by every day.  Because their awareness is peripheral, most residents haven’t thought about these places as vulnerable to development or subject to change.  They assume that they’re green now and will be green forever.

As a result, when lovely forest tracts are cleared for development or farmlands grow houses, there’s a broad feeling of outrage and disappointment.  “How could the town allow this to happen?” is a common refrain.

This outrage and disappointment is an opportunity – if land trusts and open space advocates are poised to take advantage of it.  When a community has a collective feeling of loss, they also have a desire to act.  This creates a huge opportunity for land trusts to build their member lists, raise funds, heighten their visibility, and ideally jump-start conservation efforts on other properties.

But outrage is fleeting.  People quickly adapt to lost views and paved farms.  So land trusts and open space advocates need to prepare for these developments while they’re still in the works and have their priority projects, press releases, and funding asks ready to go.  Preparing after ground has been broken will almost always result in an opportunity lost.

It will break my heart when a wonderful part of my town is suburbanized.  But hopefully we can turn land lost here into land protected elsewhere.