The Battle for Land

Saving open space can mean a fight. To protect important open spaces not already in public hands takes money. Open space is just one of many interests that makes a claim for public funds. And, unless there is more than enough money to go around—which there never is—we on the open space side can find ourselves in large disagreements. Our best argument for funding is that it is not a case of either/or—either the schools or public safety or open space. A healthy community makes room for all those things. What kind of community is it that does not support its schools, fund its police AND set aside open space? You know you are in a fight when one of the candidates for mayor tries to make a liability of the city’s most important open space acquisition in decades, Kesseler Woods. The candidate would like to hang something negative around the current mayor’s neck. The candidate casts the city’s part of the bargain as “$5 million to help a developer.” Whether or not the larger transaction helped a developer, the city’s $5 million bought the largest parcel of sensitive habitat in Newton at the cheapest price per acre in decades. The candidate argues that the money for Kesseler Woods would have been better spent on the schools. Never mind that the money came from Community Preservation Act funds that by law can ONLY be spent on open space, historic preservation, recreation or affordable housing. In a fight, accuracy goes by the boards. Your opponent may pick up any stick. You know you are in a fight when those who oppose the city’s new community farm charge that the farm is “elitist.” The farm will be open to the entire community and will, in turn, build its own community, with a cast of farmers that will change from year to year. School kids from all over town will come to learn about farming. The community farm is no more for a farming elite than a ball field is for a baseball elite or the library for a book-reading elite. Anyone who saw the farmers in their bib overalls with dirt under their nails would ask, “What elite?” As elites go, this group is not elite. Still, a charge can stick if it isn’t refuted. A charge gets a life. And so, refuting it, you are in a fight. You know you are in a fight—or, at least, a decent-sized skirmish—when you lock horns with the Newton Taxpayers Association. The NTxA is no stranger to a fight. Over the years, the NTxA has provided perhaps the only serious opposition to the city’s political status quo. The NTxA opposes the Community Preservation Act. The Act has provided the only public money for open space and other community preservation efforts in decades. It is at the heart of the Conservators’ activities. And so, with the NTxA, we are in a tug of war. The problem with the NTxA’s position on the CPA is that it is reflexive. Without regard to whether CPA spending has been frugal or appropriate, the NTxA opposes CPA spending simply as spending. When the Community Preservation Act first came along, the question was theoretical: “Do you want to dedicate a fund for these things—historic preservation, open space, recreation and affordable housing—that for decades have been starved for funds?” Now, we have a track record. If the NTxA were to take issue with CPA projects on the grounds of wastefulness, we could engage them. We would welcome that argument. We think we can win it. But if the NTxA’s case is that we should return to a yesterday when those important community interests were simply not funded, what is there to say? How can we engage them? Our track record is the expansion of open spaces at Webster and Dolan Pond. It is Kesseler Woods, for decades a priority parcel in the city’s Open Space Plan, and the new Angino Community Farm. We don’t just stand on general intentions anymore. We stand on our record. We can defend these acquisitions as frugal and appropriate. More than that, they enhance the open spaces the community wants to protect. They enhance the community itself. No one comes under attack because they are losing. We have been succeeding. But even successful efforts can be spun in a negative way. That’s why we always need to get the word out about our projects and how they benefit the community. Open space is about wildlife. It is also about people. It is about livability. Is one percent of the city’s real estate tax base too much to help maintain its livability? Is it enough? These questions may come to a citywide vote. Whether or not they do, the mayoral election will. And wouldn’t the mayoral candidate who until now has taken such a negative view of our work do better to give it a serious assessment? And, if he finds our projects successful, advocate not for less open space but for more? A good fight is good for any cause. This fight helps to remind us that the projects we bring to the city need to be defensible as wise and effective spending. The fight keeps us frugal. It keeps us sharp and effective. It helps us sort out what we value. We welcome a good debate. This one is ours to win.

Eric Reenstierna