Carole Owens: Trust and follow the process

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STOCKBRIDGE — Stockbridge has come as close to pure preservation, to maintaining the frozen past, as is possible in the modern world. The question is why? Did the village want to preserve a way of life for locals or attract tourists? Did the town believe controlled growth and limited change would maintain quality of life?

The University of Massachusetts conducted a five-year study comparing 18 quality of life indicators for 34 communities with populations of less than 25,000. It found no statistically significant difference in quality of life between the 17 communities that attracted tourists and the 17 communities that did not. Tourism did not correlate significantly with quality of life but historic preservation did.

Preservation shaped the residents' sense of place. By knowing its history, a place seemed more important to its residents, and therefore, seemed a better place to live. The study also found a positive correlation between preservation and tourism: the more buildings the community preserved the more tourists came.

Is that enough knowledge to guide voters when faced with the choices between growth and no growth, between preservation and new construction; or do voters need to consider more?

At a recent Select Board meeting, Chairman Don Chabon read a list of questions he created in response to a proposed development. It was a carefully constructed list seeking to understand the impact of the proposal. It demonstrated how much Chabon cared about Stockbridge, how seriously he took his job, and how hard he worked at it. It was a long list.

Most of us have no expertise in building and development. It would be hard for us to calculate the impact of proposed plans. All plans look good. They are presented with beautiful illustrations and promises for desirable outcomes. Absent objective impact reports, on what do voters base a decision?

That, seemingly, was Chabon's point. He wanted the citizens of Stockbridge, whom he was sworn to represent, to have information before they vote. It was a nice moment; the best of representative government. Someone in the back whispered, "This is the way these meetings should be."

Exhilarating, and hard

Immediately the developer's attorney rose and offered to answer Chabon's questions. However, Selectman Terry Flynn did not seem to want the answers. Why not? Perhaps because he only wanted to hear answers to the questions in the context of a formal negotiation done during the traditional process wherein the answers and the conclusions reached were binding.

Government is hard. What makes it harder is that in most of Berkshire County, voters are not removed from the levers of government. Most Berkshire towns, including Stockbridge, have the closest thing there is to a pure democracy. The voter is in charge. It can be exhilarating. That's the good news; here's the difficulty. It's hard.

Even if voters know what they want to happen, it is not easy to determine how to get there. That is true for developer and voters. Both have choices; both have to consider the best avenue to the desired conclusion. Even then there can be unintended consequences; surprise outcomes for voter or developer,

There may be two avenues to aid voters. They sound odd, but are easily explained. The first is: pick the consequence. The second is: focus on process over content.

There are no decisions without both advantages and consequences. We tend to choose the most advantageous. It may be more useful to choose the least harmful. That brings us back to Chabon's questions and his desire for the town to be fully informed. What will be the impact of a proposed change on the environment, the infrastructure, policing, fire prevention, the business community, water, sewer, traffic, and quality of life? Find the answers, pick the least harmful, and do that.

Picking the consequence may be a good strategy but hard to do. How do you find the answers to Chabon's questions? Trust the process. The traditional decision making process begins with a formal plan submitted by the developer to the proper municipal boards and commissions. Expert reports and recommendations follow. Based upon good information and public input, negotiations ensue.

The best process aids in getting and understanding the answers on which the best decisions are made. The best process remains civil and respectful. Neighbors are on opposite sides of one issue and stand shoulder to shoulder on another. The opposition is not the enemy so the best process results in everyone being heard, and to the extent possible, the needs of all parties being met. Surprises and unintended consequences are minimized.

It may be faster to form the questions than to find the solutions. Be patient, trust the process and pick wisely: you are shaping the future of our Berkshires — a very special place.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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