Carole Owens: Where next with planning, zoning?

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STOCKBRIDGE— Think tanks and government agencies produce a constant stream of reports about zoning and planning. They seem to seek a balance between the rights of property owners and the communal good. There is general agreement that the positive goals are safety, conservation, and aesthetics. There is common acceptance that these make a community a source of pride to residents and attractive to tourists.

Safety includes a low crime rate and a healthy environment. Clean drinking water, clean air, clean waterways, and preserved woodlands are the underpinnings of a healthy community.

Conservation includes preservation of those undeveloped lands as well as preservation of historic structures in the built environment. One study (done at UMass) found the strongest correlations with local pride were preservation of historic structures and knowledge of local history. They were also twin attractions for tourists.

Aesthetics is a rich mix of trees, flowers, and attractive buildings. Complimenting and enhancing these are fewer signs, more attractive lighting, and narrower roadways. It seems the three — safety, conservation, and aesthetics — are interrelated and even interdependent.


So, here is the key question: since most of Berkshire has all three, what are we trying to achieve through our planning and zoning process? Before we seek to answer it, we might consider how, in a crowded and sometimes dangerous world, Berkshire had such a positive outcome.

There is more than one ingredient in this perfect pie we baked. First, poverty is preservation by default. That is, if you do not have the money to do it, you don't, and things remain the same. Second, small population eases the pressure from developers and businesses. Fewer consumers for goods, fewer buyers for houses, less pressure to provide them. There is a third ingredient: values.

Berkshire character emerged with the settlers. Those hailed were hearty conservationists and beautifiers. When the Brewer sisters, Adele and Emilia, were asked by the telegraph company for permission to dig the holes on her property to set their poles, in a clear and firm voice, Emilia said, "No."

The telegraph company began to dig anyway, Emilia carried her bed outside, placed it over the hole, and slept there. In the morning, she remained in bed and told the returning workmen she would lie there as long as necessary. The workmen left and the telegraph company rerouted their poles around the Brewer property.

In 1853, Mary Hopkins founded the Laurel Hill Association, the first village improvement society in the United States. She rode the village lanes on her white horse (no kidding) picking up wastepaper (without dismounting) and arguing with recalcitrant neighbors about the condition of their dooryards.

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The first minutes read: "Every person over 14 years who shall plant and protect a tree or pay a fee of $1 annually shall be a member of this Association."

Laurel Hill grew from a dollar or a single tree per member to a 167-year-old organization that protects, preserves, and beautifies large swaths of Stockbridge.

Judy and Michael Abdalla ran Elm Street market for 21 years. They as owned a large house across the street. They envisioned building a commercial building. Did they tear down the house? Nope, in accordance with New England values, "waste not want not," they moved it.


As full of purpose as Brewer or Hopkins, Margaret (Peggy) French Cresson was prepared to fight to assure no Elm tree on Elm Street was chopped down. But this is not a story of the redoubtable women of Stockbridge. All over Berkshire, there are men and women forming land trusts, supporting the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, saving and preserving land and asking, "Help us: Keep the Berkshires."

That was the value — keep the Berkshires. Those who loved Berkshire wanted to protect and keep it for the next generation and the one after that. Having achieved what others only wish for, what are our planning and zoning goals now?

It is easy to dismiss those who want to change Berkshire as those who do not love it, but that is too easy. There are pressures: to modernize, to create jobs, to attract younger people, and build affordable housing.

We are Janus forced to look in both directions — to the future and to the past. To change and preserve at the same time. To build without tearing down. To remember that those who forced development, as the Lanesborough shopping mall, became an object lesson rather than an invitation to proceed in that direction.

A lesson to measure our steps; don't build what no one wants; don't give up what others seek and can no longer have, and don't exchange what we have for chimera — an illusion. The popularity of the Berkshires has always been cyclical. For that reason over building in a boom has always been regretted in a downturn. The onset of novel coronavirus and subsequent social distancing brings that into bold relief and should cool development fever.

Carole Owens can be reached at


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