Reflections on the library compromise

Below is the letter I sent to everyone who contacted me about the library and the zoning issues that the council voted on last month.


Hi —,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the library and zoning compromise. My apologies for the delay in responding; I received more than 100 emails and calls on the subject in the last few weeks, and I’m just now able to catch up with the kind of response that folks deserve. I’m not able to respond to everyone’s comments individually, but I wanted to at least send this email to everyone who took the time to share thoughts, as a way of explaining the reasoning behind my votes. I really, truly appreciated all of the input throughout the process, and I assure you that I read, counted, and considered every piece of correspondence as it came in. This was part of a larger process of due diligence that included attending all of the public forums, doing a plot-by-plot development analysis with the folks from the planning department, meeting with stakeholders including the Nolumbeka Project, and spending a considerable amount of time on the French King Highway.

The compromise plan that the council approved at the last full meeting was very difficult, and for all of the talk about how it might bring the community together I’m also aware that it opened a number of old wounds and served to split the community along some unexpected lines. That said, fully 70% of the feedback that I received was supportive of the compromise, whether from a pro-library or pro-development perspective. The process wasn’t perfect and it involved some hard bargaining, but overall I’m proud of what the council accomplished and I do believe that it was the will of the majority of the residents.

For those who haven’t been following every step, I voted yes in favor of all three proposals involved in the compromise: yes to the library, yes to lifting the overlay, and yes to the changes to the major development review. I’ll share some of my reasoning below, for those who are interested:

  • The library was my top priority. I support the library primarily on its own merits, and secondarily as a driver of economic activity downtown. If you’d like to know more about why, I have a recent blog post on the subject.
  • In general, I am an opponent of big box development. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that the era of big box retail is likely coming to an end, as online retail continues to expand and the preference among younger generations walkable, amenity-rich urban environments begins to take over. Additionally, I find the claims that a big box store is a silver bullet to increase the tax base to be questionable. As an example, the land that Stop & Shop sits on is assessed and taxed at $204k per acre. In contrast, much of downtown is taxed and assessed as high as $2.25 million per acre, bringing in more than ten times the revenue with much less invested in the maintenance of roads, sewers, etc. Greenfield is not Kansas; we have a scarcity of land, and it’s incumbent upon us to make smart long-term decisions about how we use what we have. I would not have supported lifting the overlay or changing the MDR if it weren’t in exchange for the library, which was a priority that I campaigned on in 2017.
  • Billing this compromise as a ‘library for Wal-Mart’ deal, as some in the community have, is inaccurate and disingenuous. Wal-Mart has expressed no interest in Greenfield as a location for a store for many years. Additionally, the site in question is a wetland, it’s a Native American burial ground protected by both NAGPRA and our local burial ground ordinance, and it’s currently under lease by Stop & Shop with the specific goal of keeping large-scale competitors at bay. The chances that a Wal-Mart will appear on that site are close to zero.
  • While I believe that real big box development is unlikely, I am concerned about the potential for low-level sprawl development. With the overlay gone, we may see interest in gas stations, fast food, and similar developments, all of which bring in similarly low tax revenue as compared to its impact on the community. This prospect keeps me awake at night.
  • On that note, I do see this deal as an opportunity to re-examine, as a community, the future of that particular section of the French King Highway; to look beyond what we passionately don’t want, and towards what we would like to see. The Mackin property, which has been the center of this conflict for so many years, is an abandoned gravel quarry.  It provides neither a beautiful nor a particularly welcoming gateway to the community, and the ecological and historical value it may have had at one point has been permanently damaged by an operation that stripped the land down to the water table. Wal-Mart is not our only option for development in this area, and the overlay has always been, from a planning perspective, a fairly blunt instrument. Is The French King an appropriate place for a new park? For designated and protected open space? Cluster housing? Senior housing? A mixed-use development, along the lines of the Village Commons in South Hadley? An innovation hub for precision machine industries? Obviously the market plays major role in development, but the city has a number of tools to restrain and encourage certain development patterns. I’m very interested in engaging in a conversation about this (as well as similar conversations about other areas in town) and I would welcome input from all of you on the topic.

I hope that this information is helpful in clarifying how we came to the current decision. Please feel free to be in touch if you have more comments, or if you have ideas for the French King or any others of town that could benefit from some thoughtful planning.

Best,

Tim Dolan

Greenfield Town Council

Precinct 5