Guest columnist Jackie Ballance: To Northampton’s 2021 council candidates

  • Northampton city hall File photo

Published: 8/12/2021 6:00:03 PM

Kathryne Young’s description of the slaughter of the cherry trees on Warfield Place in the Aug. 10 Gazette (“What happened on Warfield”) raised a few questions for me. Why send something like a SWAT team to cut down trees that were so obviously beloved in the community? Sounds like something from a cruel and dystopian totalitarian world, not a quaint and progressive New England college town.

Alternatives were possible — until the trees were killed. Why would the city want to make its residents suffer such a loss? Those blossoms made people glad to be alive every spring. Buddhist monks’ robes are not a joke.

The Warfield Place tragedy is only one of a few recent examples of our city government failing to respect, or even solicit, input from community members most affected by municipal decisions.

Bay State villagers spent seven months ultimately trying to convince the city to use its powerful special permit tool to guide zero lot line developments into compliance with the city’s own Resilience and Regeneration Plan. The special permit provision of the zoning code is the only part of that plan that has teeth under state law. Ignoring the city’s own climate mitigation measures, our zoning planners chose instead to encourage business as usual. The city’s final response and insult to the concerned citizens was to revise the zoning to give developers even more “flexibility.”

Bay State residents’ comments to the Planning Board were answered repeatedly with obfuscation that’s well documented in the city’s video archives. Meanwhile, an out-of-town developer is building new houses as fast as possible, houses that will likely be alterations in the face of climate change. Like the cherry trees on Warfield Place, the heavy-handed damage to the Bay Sate neighborhood is well underway.

Residents from all across the city who appreciate Northampton’s history are fighting to preserve St. John Cantius Church. Long beloved and widely known as “the Polish church,” it is a uniquely beautiful piece of architecture and an important part of the city’s immigrant history. If we can make condos out of an old jail, why can’t we make condos out of a place with good vibes? Demolition has a negative environmental impact, and the building, like the cherry trees, is both beloved in the community and irreplaceable. The “most economical” choice is not always the wise one.

The grassroots group Main Street for Everyone already has support from growing numbers in the business community and among some city officials. With a deep appreciation of the climate catastrophe we are facing, M4E ideas are more visionary than other proposals to redesign Main Street. Yet it was suggested at the last public hearing that the die may be cast, and M4E could be too late to have their bold and comprehensive ideas considered. In the face of the IPCC “Red Alert” for our climate, can how we afford to do less than use this opportunity to prepare for what’s coming?

After COVID brought city meetings into our homes on Zoom, I was able to observe our city government in action, up close and personal, in multiple meetings weekly, for several months straight. I noticed that many groups had little idea what other departments were doing. My impression was that City Hall is largely fragmented and out of touch, even with itself.

So much recent citizen pushback as described here suggests that there are important city officials who might not understand the interests of ordinary people, nor do they hold the needs of future generations (climate!) among their top priorities.

Now that the scientists of the IPCC say we must rapidly shift into climate survival mode, I challenge candidates running for office this year to answer some serious questions in a public forum soon, including these:

<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull>Please address how you would make the city more responsive to the community it’s supposed to serve. Use the examples of Warfield Place, Bay State Village, St. John Cantius Church, and Main Street for Everyone.

■How will you prioritize climate issues and fast-track the solutions already in the Resilience and Regeneration Plan?

I especially challenge current officials running for office to defend their records. Our City Council passed a styrene plastics ban that won’t be in effect for another five years. Five more years, really? Is that an emergency response?

The same city councilors who voted unanimously to declare an impotent climate emergency also voted unanimously to approve a new gas station on King Street. That’s 40,000 gallons of high-octane karma to answer for.

Jackie Ballance lives in Florence.

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