Duxbury Development

The current controversy concerning a proposed 24-unit development off Bow Street, which faces vigorous opposition from abutters and others in the neighborhood, is part of a much broader issue: the course of future residential and commercial development in Duxbury. The bottom line is that Duxbury will likely experience far more and much denser development over the next decade.

The late Ruth Rowley, a former Selectwoman and long-time active volunteer participant in Duxbury Town Government, long ago predicted that the real challenge in preserving the semi-rural and historical character of Duxbury would come in the final stages of build out. A combination of factors has created, in recent years, a situation of precisely the sort that Ruth predicted; one that will play out over the next decade or two.

The root of the matter is quite simple. It is that there is a lot of money to be made developing properties in Duxbury, especially if Duxbury’s local zoning by-laws can be eased, set aside, or simply ignored. An improving economy, superficially “do-good” Massachusetts laws that demolish local zoning restrictions, and more builder-friendly land use boards in Duxbury are combining into a sort of “perfect storm” that has already permitted more new residential units than Duxbury has seen in decades. And there is more to come.

When we last did a full-scale Comprehensive Plan for the Town of Duxbury in 1999 it was determined that a complete build-out under the then current Zoning Bylaws could, theoretically, result in an population increase of 80% to a theoretical maximum of 26,877.

Of course, no one expected that the theoretical maximum would be reached. The forecast in the plan projected an increase from 5,100 households and a population of 14,848 in 2000 to 5,378 households and 15,042 people in 2010 and, by 2020, 5,588 households with a total population still of only 15,199.

In fact, the actual population in 2000, at 14,248, was slightly less than estimated but actual growth somewhat higher so that the population in 2010, despite a very slow economy during that decade, was almost exactly as predicted (15,059 actual versus the 15,042 predicted) even though the number of households (5,344 actual versus 5,378 predicted) as slightly lower.

New units already permitted, however, not even half way through this current decade, already are more than enough substantially to exceed 5,378 households by 2020 and larger than predicted household sizes will grow total population much more rapidly in this decade than in the last. Moreover, the pace of new development is increasing and likely to accelerate. Duxbury will be a lot closer to theoretical build-out density by 2020 than anyone thought it would be back in 1999.

Ironically, it is the quality of life in Duxbury brought about by the restrictive zoning and strict enforcement of the past that makes it such a desirable place to live today – and that makes more and denser development so profitable. Unfortunately, however, that development will prove as devastating to Duxbury’s taxpayers as it is profitable to developers, since the actual cost of new units to the town will exceed the tax revenues they bring in. It is not a very pretty picture.

Hall’s Corner Confusion

One of the liveliest conversations to date on the “You know you’re from Duxbury when. . .” page on Facebook was set off last Friday morning with the wry comment: “Someone new to town must have found navigating Hall’s Corner difficult. Now there is a cop attempting to direct traffic! What’s so difficult? Keep the flag pole to port and don’t look at other drivers!” By noon on Sunday that posting had 64 likes, one share, and 52 comments!

In fact, the police officer seems to have been on traffic detail to ensure the safety of runners in some sort of (apparently unannounced) road race. But the extended discussion on Facebook made it clear that even long-time Duxbury residents are confused about the proper flow of traffic through the five-way intersection at Hall’s Corner and the rules drivers should follow when passing through it.

The the confusion begins with varying understandings of what the Hall’s Corner intersection is under Part I, Title XIV, Chapter 89, Section 8 (“Right-of-way at intersecting ways; turning on red signals”) of the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There are three possibilities, with different rules:

  • The first, a sort of default baseline, is that when “two vehicles approach or enter an intersection of any ways . . . at approximately the same instant . . . the operator of the vehicle on the left shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right”.
  • The second applies to left turns in ordinary intersections: “Any operator intending to turn left” must “yield the right-of-way” to vehicles moving in the opposite direction “until such time as the left turn can be made with reasonable safety.”
  • The third and final case governs rotary intersections: “Any operator of a vehicle entering a rotary intersection shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle already in the intersection.”

So, if Hall’s Corner is an ordinary five-way intersection a car entering from Standish Street and exiting on Chestnut Street is making a left turn and must yield to one proceeding directly across the intersection (entering from Depot Street and exiting onto Standish). But if Hall’s Corner is a rotary the driver coming out of Standish Street and proceeding the Chestnut Street should have the right of way.

In fact, Hall’s Corner is not a rotary, despite the “rotary” signs put up late last year on the approaches from Standish Street and from Depot Street. It is legally an ordinary intersection with, in theory, a five-way stop sign. Drivers proceeding straight through have the right-of-way over those moving in the opposite direction and making left turns. If it were a rotary it should have yield signs, not stop signs.

It is not even necessary to go around the center island, despite the arrow signs placed on it last year. It is perfectly legal to enter from Chestnut Street, keep to the left of the center island, and turn left onto Depot Street provided, of course, you yield to cars entering from Washington Street and continuing straight through to Chestnut Street. Large trucks sometime, quite legally, do so.

Topping off the confusion is the lack of a stop sign on Chestnut Street. One is meant to be there, but there is no place to put it. So to prevent drivers entering from Chestnut Street assuming (wrongly) that they can just blast into the intersection without stopping (or even slowing down) the confusion has been compounded recently with signs erroneously giving the impression Hall’s Corner is a rotary.

A perhaps fortunate side effect of the confusion is that most drivers, uncertain of who really has the right of way and who does not, tend to be extra cautious moving through Hall’s Corner. There have not been many accidents between two moving vehicles. Still, it would be far better to resolve the confusion rather than perpetuate and even to exacerbate with signs implying it is a rotary when it is not.

Open Doublespeak

George Orwell’s dystopian book “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (published in 1949) portrays a repressive dictatorial society in which thought and language are deliberately distorted to mean the opposite of what they should mean. Although not directly used in the book, the word “doublespeak” is generally acknowledged to have originated as a variant on the related term “doublethink” – which is used in the book. It refers to “language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words” according to the Wikipedia article on it.

The Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (a.k.a. the Mass. Legislature) has clearly mastered the art of doublespeak, passing a “freedom of information” act providing numerous ways for state and local government to frustrate citizen attempts to obtain information and an “open meeting law” that offers numerous ways to obscure or conceal what goes on in meetings while impeding effective action by citizen volunteer boards and committees.

The doublespeak absurdity of the so-called “freedom of information” laws is so egregious that the Legislature has recently felt compelled to make at least a pretense of attempting to reform it – though with no actual reform thus far. The situation with the recently revised and purportedly reformed and improved “open meeting” law is, however, even worse.

The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law is, in large part, a doublespeak con game. It make a great show of formal requirements for posting and holding meetings while ensuring that, unless someone goes to the trouble of recording it, what actually goes on during a meeting will largely be erased from view by way of selectively kept sanitized minutes. This can readily be verified by anyone who cares to compare the recordings of any meeting of, say, the Duxbury Board of Selectmen with the minutes of that meeting.

By far the worst doublespeak aspect of the so-called Open Meeting Law, however, is the policy of the Office of Open Government within the Office of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that forbids discussion by email among a quorum of a public body. The result is to ensure that any discussions outside the actual meeting will remain concealed entirely from public view while making the work of the board or committee more difficult, less effective, less efficient and less open.

A far better approach would be freely to permit discussion of matters before a public body via email between actual physical meetings subject to the requirements that 1) all such emails must be sent to the entire membership of the body; 2) copies must also be provided to a keeper of record (for example, the Office of the Town Clerk in the case of a town); 3) that such copies be immediately available to any citizen who requests them (or, even better, that citizens have the right to be included on the email circulation list for the body upon their request); 4) that copies of all such emails must be included as part of the minutes of the next physical meeting of the body; and 5) that no other communications among any members of the body, whether a quorum or not, shall be permitted between meetings except via such emails.

This would ensure that deliberations of public bodies would be far more open, more publicly accessible, and more fully and accurately recorded than they are now. It would make the operation of citizen volunteer boards and committees far more efficient and effective, as well as more open. Our elected representatives to the Legislature should see to it that such a policy is implemented promptly. Do you think?

Sub-Urbanification

Fifteen years ago, on December 6, 1999, on the brink of the new millennium, the Duxbury Planning Board completed a major update to the Duxbury Comprehensive Plan. Based upon a Town-wide survey and with the professional assistance of John Brown Associates, the executive summary began with a statement of the “broad goals” of the plan:

  • To preserve the semi-rural, historical, residential character of the Town;
  • To provide first rate, top quality education in our schools;
  • To protect the Town’s water supply and the water of our lakes and ponds, our harbor and beaches;
  • To maintain and improve environmental quality;
  • To ensure a sound fiscal basis for the Town while minimizing the tax burden on residents;
  • To provide and enhance recreational facilities for all residents; and
  • To increase the amount of protected undeveloped open space in the Town

All things considered, those goals held up quite well through the first decade of the 21st Century. The population grew from 14,248 in 2000 to 15,059 in 2010, a modest 5.69% increase, according to US Census Bureau data. Substantial open space was acquired. Our schools were among the best in Massachusetts. Town finances were rock-solid and tax increases at least reasonably under control. Our recreational facilities, already very good, got even better.

The supply of housing stock, however, grew more rapidly than did population, from 5,345 housing units in 2000 to 5,875 in 2010, a considerably greater increase of 9.92%, despite the fall in housing prices after their temporary peak in 2005. The number of vacant housing units increased by 33.08% (from 399 to 531) between 2000 and 2010. That was, however, a temporary condition.

Average home prices in Duxbury, according to Zillow, after falling sharply between 2005 and 2010, bottomed out in 2011/2012 and began to recover significantly in 2013, increasing 5.5% over the past year. Despite tougher financing requirements, the Duxbury real estate market has been heating up dramatically over the past few months. Unless the economy does another face plant soon, possibly but not likely, demand for housing in Duxbury and therefore housing prices are likely headed for all-time highs over the next few years.

Given how much new development there has been in Duxbury since 2000, despite a generally difficult economy and depressed housing prices, it takes no more than common sense to see that there is plenty of money to be made by promoting more and faster development less encumbered by the Duxbury zoning laws that, until now, have done a pretty good job in preserving what is left of the “semi-rural, historical, residential character of the Town”.

Ironically, it is precisely the quality of life in Duxbury that makes it such a desirable place to live and that will, over the next decade, create tremendous pressure for accelerated development. Absent strong reaffirmation of the goals of the 1999 Comprehensive Plan, that pressure will lead to the accelerating sub-urbanification of Duxbury and the elimination of what is left of its “semi-rural” character.

Yet this is precisely what is intentionally being promoted in Duxbury’s town government by those who are in positions to profit, directly or indirectly, by such development. Land-use boards are becoming more “developer friendly”. “Affordable housing” is being used to blow by local zoning laws. And there is more to come.

The Upsides and Downsides of the In-Crowd

When one refers to a “town hall in-crowd” or to “town hall insiders”, some readers apparently assume that the intent of such phrases is necessarily pejorative. A few have responded critically with letters saying there is no such thing (while defending some or all of its members as dedicated public servants foully maligned by any suggestion that they are part of it).

Yet Duxbury certainly does have a social structure that such phrases can reasonably be used to name. Like all social structures its exact boundaries are not sharply defined. But a sociologist would have no trouble making a clear definition and description of it. It includes, at its core, a number of long-time citizen volunteers active in town government as well as some town employees in key positions of influence, most of whom are also citizens of Duxbury.

Like all successful social institutions the in-crowd perpetuates itself, assimilates newcomers, encourages continued (and broader) participation by those who harmonize with it, and discourages those who do not. One of the most common variations is seen in the path from citizen volunteer, initially in some minor capacity, through appointment to key committees like the Finance Committee and the Fiscal Advisory Committee (both appointed by the Town Moderator), to election to the Board of Selectmen.

Like private clubs that screen out prospective members who are not likely to harmonize readily with the existing membership, Duxbury’s town hall in crowd vets those interested in actively participating in town government. It backs and promotes those who accord with its general consensus to more influential positions. Outliers who do not harmonize well with the group are just not re-appointed. If they run for elected office they are defeated, if possible, by the in crowd’s preferred candidate. Most of the time, the preferred candidate wins.

It would be easy to provide specific examples of how this works by listing the successions of positions held by some of the more prominent de facto members of the town government in-crowd over the years – and by reviewing the history of the relatively few successful candidates for elected office in recent decades that were not backed by the in-crowd. But for present purposes there is no need to, as it were, name names.

For the key point here is that although there clearly is a self-perpetuating in-crowd in Duxbury’s town government, its influence is generally benign. For the most part, its members really are dedicated volunteers who devote enormous amounts of time and energy doing their best to ensure that the Town of Duxbury is well and fairly run for the good of the community as a whole. There is a considerable upside to the in-crowd and so there is nothing inherently pejorative in acknowledging its existence.

There are also, however, potential downsides. One is that when the majority of voters does not agree with the consensus of the in-crowd its’ response may be to try to deny voters any direct say in the matter. Another is that individual members of the in-crowd may occasionally be tempted to use their position for personal advantage, rather than for the good of the community as a whole.

What works well requires less attention than what does not. Let us therefore make it a point to affirm that, for the most part, the town hall in-crowd works very well on behalf of all the citizens, taxpayers, and voters of the Town of Duxbury. Let us by all means celebrate its upside! But let us also not hesitate to recognize and to correct any occasional slips to the downside, either. Let us not forget the wise old saying: “Trust in God, but tie your horse to the hitching post!”