With the recent publishing of Massachusetts Audubon's report on "Losing Ground" (massaudubon.org/our-conservation-work/community-outreach/sustainable-planning-development/losing-ground/fast-facts), the town of Ayer has realized a dubious distinction of building more houses per square mile than any other community in the commonwealth. This, due to the permitting of 700 homes and lack of land protection. This in sharp contrast to the surrounding towns and, indeed, the majority of towns in Massachusetts.
It did not happen in a vacuum or because citizen activists didn't warn about this. It comes from the Ayer Planning Board being dominated for 14 years by developers and real estate interests (or members who sympathized with these interests) who have steadfastly fought any revision to our antiquated zoning bylaws and subdivision regulations and substantial revising of same that anyone with a professional planning background has called for.
It has led to the proliferation of large subdivisions that have given Ayer its unseemly high growth rate and taken advantage of our low property tax rates and cheap water and sewer rates. All this requiring more in police, fire, schools, services and road maintenance. All while changing the rural character and quality of life of Ayer.
The town of Ayer housing stock, which was around 2,200 units in fiscal year 2000, will grow almost 30 percent when all permitted homes are completed, with more to come. And while it is not uncommon to have Planning Board members involved in local real estate, the extent to which the APB has been dominated by people with strong self-interest has been especially pervasive. Members have been real estate agents, land developers, a lawyer tied to land developers, local businessmen and others who have supported this pro-building lobby at the expense of the town's rural character and low tax rates.
In the midst of this building boom, the citizens of Ayer developed a comprehensive plan which was virtually ignored by the APB during its inception, subsequent public hearings and attempts to implement parts of it since the town's adoption in 2004.
Four major recommendations of the comprehensive plan were:
1. Reform the zoning bylaws.
2. Hire a dedicated planner.
3. New zoning map.
4. Revitalize downtown with allowable mixed-uses, commercial, residential as part of smart growth transient-oriented development and support outlying areas of economic activity.
It would be difficult not to notice the extent to which some of those responsible for overseeing the regulatory process have also had a hand in building some of these developments. This seems atypical of other communities.
And it is not that Ayer didn't have access to planning professionals. In fact, there was a wealth of professional input to upgrade our antiquated zoning bylaws and guide us to a more reasonable approach than such a dubious distinction has shed light on.
It's just that their efforts were ignored or thwarted or they resigned from the Planning Board due to harassment by the dominant majority.
Chris Ryan, Ayer town planner, AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) PhD hired as Ayer town planner; Glenn Garber, APB member, AICP, 40-year career in professional planning, in consulting, town planning, academia and in special projects, including former director of Devens Enterprise Commission; Jenifer Gibbons, APB member, extensive experience as former administrative coordinator for the Planning Board, Community Opportunities Group, professional planning consultants on the Ayer Comprehensive Plan and major innovative zoning amendments and recommendations; Jeremy Callahan, APB member, degree in city planning.
That many professionals being ignored cannot be positioned as a matter of mere personality conflicts.
Town Meeting voiced its disapproval this spring with the APB by stripping it and the Zoning Board of appeals of all funding. But as the new proposed subdivision at the end of Pleasant and Nashua street show, nothing has changed.
To small towns everywhere in the commonwealth, take heed to what happened here.
For the citizens of Ayer, it's time to adopt the zoning bylaws revisions and change the make-up of too many elected members of the Planning Board whose loyalties do not seem to lie with the taxpayers of Ayer, taxpayers who will fund this over-development with increases in our property taxes well into the future.