In Close Proximity: The rise and fall of Hampshire County
AMHERST — In 1643, finding its judicial duties intruding upon legislative responsibilities, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Co. organized the towns under its control into four enormous counties: Essex, Middlesex, Suffolk and the “Old” Norfolk County. Hampshire County was formed in 1662 out of Middlesex County, from which parts of Worcester County would also be created in 1731.
There would be further divisions of Hampshire County itself: first the creation of Berkshire County (1761) and then the creation of Franklin (1811) and Hampden (1812) counties. Yet, for a century, there was one large county government over a significant part of the Connecticut River watershed.
This is background for a set of general questions posed here: If local town governments are to take effective measures against the growing threat of environmental degradation and climate change, over what natural area should they concentrate local efforts? How should they relate to each other? And what potential political structures might they need below the level of the state as a whole?
We suggest it would be an area large enough to include agricultural lands, industries, forests and transportation infrastructure. It should be one that pays close attention to this natural area, such as a watershed like the Connecticut, and thereby minimizes the negative environmental impacts of human activities.
It should be supremely sensitive to the local ecology by being in close proximity to this watershed — not too small, not too big, not too far away. It must also have the broad and collective perspective that only higher levels of government can have.
Today, however, the several remnants of the original Hampshire County are each described as “non-governmental,” which means they have no function at all. To provide regional services to the towns of each successor county, regional councils of government (COGs) have been instituted. Additionally, the traditional judicial services of the county courts have been taken over by the state. The COGs provide services only at the convenience of the towns, and cannot mandate a long-term objective such as ecological sustainability, which from our point of view suggests a fatal weakness — subjecting the individual towns to competition with each other for development investments coming predominately from the commercial world, and subject to their will and desire for short-term profit-taking.
To illustrate, take the town of Shelburne Falls, an old mill town with a significant agricultural hinterland — struggling to be a post-mill artist community and tourist destination. Historically, the mill brought workers to live alongside the farmers; the automobile brought middle-class homeowners seeking the low taxes and tranquility of a rural zone.
The artists, the farmers and the homeowners are each pleased by the rural nature of it all, but these conditions are hard to maintain without development with which to support good schools, police, fire and libraries.
Nobody seems to have noticed that gasoline-powered engines enabled big boxes, truckloads of food from California, ever more housing development, and greater demand for services and conveniences — threatening farmers, the rural setting and the natural environment which the homeowners came to enjoy in the first place.
Last year, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments commissioned a study by the Conway School of Landscape Design to determine if enough farmland remains for food self-sufficiency in Franklin County. Result: yes, enough remains, but not with the continuing threats from development and not without keeping farming commercially viable locally.
Development came famously from an entrepreneur bent on situating an industrial-scale wind farm on Mount Massaemont — overlooking the village, threatening the tourist trade and the home values of the urban escapees.
Perhaps the resurrection of counties once again could provide a non-commercial planning perspective that could allow some towns to be empty spaces full of forest and farms, while other places provide manufacturing with a mass transit system to reduce carbon pollution while providing access to the countryside for all. This cannot be expected from developers — even wind farmers.
Steve Randall, Rob Crowner and Larry Ely write for the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project and welcome reader thoughts by email at email@example.com.