Our Opinion: Adams' ugly display of fearmongering

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The display of ignorance and prejudice at a public meeting in Adams Monday was an embarrassment to the town. It offers a textbook example of the dangers of irresponsible social media behavior and testifies to the ugly precedent created by a U.S. president who ratchets up hysteria with his fear-based rhetoric.

The subject of the Planning Board meeting was a proposed amendment to the zoning bylaws to create a "Smart Growth Overlay District," also known as the Chapter 40R program, to spur redevelopment of underused or blighted properties in town centers (Scott Stafford article, Eagle, August 1). Use of the program is strongly advocated by the state. It makes it easier for property owners to develop for mixed uses such as retail, office and residential. In this way, towns like Adams which are in dire need of new businesses and new residents to offset a declining population would benefit. According to the state's website, 27 Massachusetts communities have adopted Chapter 40R, including Pittsfield.

One of the strengths of the program in a state with a shortage of affordable housing is that 20 percent of the residential units would be targeted for low- and moderate-income renters. It was this provision that brought out the worst in many of those attending the hearing.

Fears were expressed that the town would be flooded with crime and drugs and the schools packed with low-income families with special needs if this provision was adopted. These are among the degrading stereotypes attached to low-income (read minority) residents, and speakers piled on with a dig at special needs students, who can come from any ethnic or income group. Worst of all, a young woman who identified herself as a single mother with a low income and an autistic child and wondered if she should stay in a "town that hates us" left the meeting in tears as residents urged her to follow through and move.

In a follow-up story Friday, Donna Cesan, a presenter at the meeting as director of Community Development for Adams, acknowledged that the failure to provide widespread notice of the meeting may have upset residents. That, however, doesn't excuse the misinformation about Chapter 40R and the meeting that swirled over social media, resulting in a crowd of residents who were already angry and fearful when the meeting started. "It's hard to counter the ill effects of social media," said Ms. Cesan. "There was an effort at fearmongering." It is in fact all but impossible to counter the ill effects of social media, where fearmongering by a few is quickly reinforced by many.

Town officials were left to correct misguided notions about the program before an audience that, as Town Administrator Jay Green observed in Friday's Eagle, didn't want to hear it. While the program would allow for 600 units, officials pointed out that they would only be built as the market and the economy allow. Decrepit buildings that contribute little or nothing to the tax rolls will be revived and add considerable new valuation. Ms. Cesan noted in The Eagle that 58 percent of Adams residents have low to moderate incomes, which means that speakers at the meeting were arguing against more people like them coming into town.

The meeting may not reflect the views of a majority of residents, but the town has clearly been poisoned by misguided beliefs and prejudices. It' would be naive to think this is not present elsewhere in the Berkshires. There was a similar undercurrent in Lenox in May when a worthy affordable housing project was defeated, although Adams residents were far more straightforward than their counterparts. There was a disturbing Trumpian aspect to the Adams meeting, in which the template established by the president making it permissible to publicly express one's most ignorant, misinformed and prejudiced thoughts was followed, even to the extent of targeting a distraught single mother. The "trickle-down effect" of our polarized national debate, mourned Mr. Green, "has found its way to Adams."

Adams may think it can wall itself off from the outside world but it will only rot from the inside — a process that may be well underway. Rather than pull up the drawbridge, Adams needs to encourage a jolt of new blood. The reasons are many, perhaps foremost among them filling seats in schools so the town doesn't have to face the painful need to close them.

Happily, Adams can still redeem itself. We urge the Planning Board and Select Board to consider the "Smart Growth" program on its considerable merits, and we ask voters at the town meeting to determine whether or not to adopt it to do the same, setting aside fearmongering in the process. This process will go a long way toward eliminating the ugly stain on the town left by the public meeting.

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