Thursday, April 30, 2009

The reign of localism

Regional Failure by Local Design

How town politicians wreck rational governing

If the Town of Boston doesn’t want a county-wide planning board, the rest of us may not get it.

The reason can be found in the transcript of the April 1 meeting of the Town Board of the Town of Boston. At that meeting, the Boston town supervisor announced that he opposes a county-wide planning board because the faraway government of Erie County has given a permit to a group of model airplane enthusiasts to use a county-owned field on Feddick Road to fly and land their model airplanes.

Feddick Road is within the boundaries of the Town of Boston, which is about 20 miles south of Buffalo. Locals report that land to be a wintertime thoroughfare for snowmobiles.

Notwithstanding the fact that the airplane club’s members went door-to-door in the area around the 600-plus-acre county parcel to reassure the neighbors, neither the club nor the county sought permission from the four elected Town Board members, nor from the town supervisor.

Here is an excerpt of the Town Supervisor William A. Eagan’s comments from the official Web site of the Town of Boston:

This is the County making a deal with someone on land use without any consideration of Boston residents. I would like the county to allow a public hearing on this issue regardless of what our codes say and let our residents who are going to have to listen to this come in and voice their opinion. This club will be infringing on the peace and quiet of this community without asking our permission and that is where we lose our identity.

The Erie County legislator who represents that area noted that the 600 acres of land where the Flying Knights Airplane Club seeks to fly its model airplanes is county property and it is available for everyone’s use.

Further discussion on this issue ensued at the Town of Boston board meeting, during which the town attorney, who is paid for his services, also voiced his opposition to a county-wide planning board.

Local political control uber alles

Strangely, the views of the town supervisor of Boston seem to have relevance beyond the boundaries of a town that is more than 65 percent rural—probably because he wears another public hat. Eagan is also the director of economic development of the City of Lackawanna. According to published reports and other sources, he has helped to convince Daniel Kozub, the Erie County legislator who represents Lackawanna, and other elected officials that they, too, should oppose a county-wide planning board.

Another county legislator, Tim Wroblewski, whose insurance firm does business with the City of Lackawanna, voted against the legislation that would create a county-wide planning board.

If you live in the Town of Boston, which is about 20 miles south of Buffalo just off Route 219, you don’t get what you pay for when it comes to local government. Happily for Boston residents, but not so happily for the rest of the greater Buffalo metro area, you get a whole lot more than you pay for.

The 7,900 or so Town of Boston residents do not have to pay town taxes for a police department because the Erie County Sheriff provides police services. There is also a barracks of the New York State Police in Boston. There are major county and state roads in Boston, most notably Routes 219 and 353, otherwise known as Boston State Road. County water serves Boston. The NFTA serves Boston. So maybe it’s no wonder that, according to a remarkable 2002 document called “The Town of Boston Comprehensive Plan: A Vision for 2020,” planners expect the Town of Boston’s population to grow another 2,000 by 2025.

Imagine that. A little town with county services is predicted to grow—even though lots of folks (including the consultants who wrote Boston’s comprehensive plan) acknowledge that the region is in a “zero-sum game” in which “growth” will “almost certainly follow the current form of low-density sprawl.”

The plan is confusing about this issue. It says both that Boston should either encourage more residential development (“…the more building permits issued the more healthy a community,” according to page 52) and that the town should not do so (“restrict development in environmentally sensitive areas,” according to page 12). At the same April 1 meeting at which the intrusion of model-airplane hobbyists was decried, the Town Board passed Local Law No. 1 of the Year 2009 entitled “A Local Law for the Additional Extension of a Moratorium on Applications for the Approvals of Subdivisions, Planned Unit Developments, Cluster Developments, and Multiple Dwellings over Two Units.”

So what we have here is a quintet of empowered town officials who want to do it their way. They want to decide who uses county land. They want to decide who builds what and where. And they want their county roads and county sheriffs and county water and state police, too.

Local, local, local

It could be that Boston’s town meeting proves that Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations about the persnicketyness of small-town American freemen resonate through the ages.

Or it could be that what we have here is a 98 percent Caucasian community that embodies the views and values that sent Western New York’s own Timothy McVeigh and a truckload of fertilizer up against a symbol of higher governmental authority.

The late South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings used to tell the story of a constituent of his who had been born in a public hospital, educated in a state college whose faculty got their PhDs thanks to the GI Bill, vaccinated with medicines developed by the National Institutes of Health, who drove to work every day on a federal highway, worked for a defense contractor, and was thrilled by the new PBS series on World War II produced by the Library of Congress, but who nevertheless wrote his senator a letter demanding that Hollings get the damned government off this man’s back.

Right now, this recurring anti-government infantilism has several expressions in our community. One is the bizarre movement to reduce the number of members of town boards, as if a four-member Town of Boston board would react any differently to the Flying Knights Airplane Club’s use of county land any differently than the five-member board did. Another is the Buffalo-Niagara-Partnership-sponsored drive that is ingeniously called the Commission for the 21st Century, which is allegedly examining whether the Erie County Legislature should be further downsized, disempowered, its members stripped of salary, staff, and constituent-service offices, all on the pretext of reform but mainly as a way to further diminish the closest thing we have to a regional governing body that can challenge the localism that the business community here so cherishes. Also underway, albeit mainly as ill-organized media stunts, is the Tea Party movement of anti-tax protesters, at whose last rally some of the most vociferous complainers included a public school teacher and a fellow who works as a guard at a New York State jail.

Since the political demise of Joel Giambra in 2005 and the race-based crushing of pro-regionalism Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson’s campaign for Monroe County executive in 2007, Upstate New York has seen no elected leader willing to champion true regional governance. But the flickering light of rationality has been growing in candlepower recently, as Erie County Legislator Maria Whyte and eight of her 14 colleagues have bravely advanced the bipartisan, Giambra-era initiative to rein in destructive localism by enacting a planning board—which 58 of 62 of New York State’s counties already have.

Town of Boston politicians don’t want it. The Lackawanna politicians who listen to the Boston politicians don’t want it. The county executive doesn’t want it. Yet the movement toward regional governance persists. If Whyte convinces another one of her colleagues that the objections to regional planning are as laughable as opposition to model airplanes in the field already used by snowmobilers, perhaps this could be the last spring of our localist infancy, and the beginning of maturity.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

Reader Comments

30 Apr 2009, 02:49
The only thing "the late" Fritz Hollings is late for might be dinner, maybe, as he's still alive....

Bruce Fisher
30 Apr 2009, 13:55
Former Senator Fritz Hollings retired from the US Senate in 2005. I wrote "late" but meant "former," and the error is all mine.

04 May 2009, 00:27
Thank you very much, I’m so glad that people publicize information like this that is 100% wrong and made up.
I’m personally involved with the model airpark project and you are way off base with your comments.
1. This area was a model airpark that the Town of Boston set up many years ago with the help of Erie County.
2. In the past a permit was issued to the Flying Knights by the Town of Boston to use this site.
3. The Flying Knights stopped using this site when a better site was opened in the town of Hamburg.
4. This property is owned by Erie County. This is where we started the process to reuse this site. Makes sense to me to get permission from the land owner first.
5. The permit process was started only one month ago. We have NOT RECEIVED ONE from Erie County.
6. Legislator Reynolds, to my knowledge, spoke to Supervisor Eagan last summer about our request to the County.
7. Legislator Reynolds brought this to the town board only a few days after we started the permit process. I don’t feel that this was a wrong thing to do, it’s what you want. We were informed that a public meeting was going to be needed. This didn’t come as a surprise and have planned for it.
8. We are going thru all the right channels and taking things one step at a time. The Area will require a great deal of work to make it useable. I don’t see this happening over night or even this year.
This comment is totally untrue and not even close to stretching it. If someone had gone “door to door” I’m the one that would have done it. No one has done this.
“Notwithstanding the fact that the airplane club’s members went door-to-door in the area around the ‘600-plus-acre county parcel to reassure the neighbors, neither the club nor the county sought permission from the four elected Town Board members, nor from the town supervisor.”
Get your facts straight.
I’m demanding a personal apology to the flying knights for putting our great organization in a very bad light.

Bruce Fisher
04 May 2009, 08:15
Dear Bill --
All the comments from Supervisor Eagan and all the information about the permitting and the views of officials are from the official minutes of the Boston Town Board meeting of April 1, 2009. Read for yourself at the Town of Boston website, The issue remains: the Town of Boston's elected officials oppose Erie County government's decision to allow a not-for-profit group to use County land.

05 May 2009, 08:08
Dear Bruce,fuck you,"Or it could be that what we have here is a 98 percent Caucasian community that embodies the views and values that sent Western New York’s own Timothy McVeigh and a truckload of fertilizer up against a symbol of higher governmental authority",I live for alternative media,viewpoints,positions,not just prejudiced doctrine ,thank goodness that a "visiting" professor would take the time to make an empirical supposition about the make-up of a community as opposed to a generalization about us Caucasians