Today’s story, old as the hills and fragrant as cow manure on a summer day, has an unusual twist going for it.
All too often, small town Americans face an ambitious land developer whose big plans usually allow him to do pretty much whatever he desires because he’s got the fat wallet and skinny lawyers to pull it off. By the time citizens get “woke” to what’s going on, the proverbial toothpaste is squeezed out of the tube and there’s no stopping “progress.”
What once was their nice, quiet little town isn’t so nice and quiet anymore.
Usually, whenever irate citizens blame a developer for his land-grabbing ways, calling him a bully for running roughshod over their town, it’s likely that the town enabled the developer to do just what developers do. They twist the arms of public officials for tax breaks and variances in order to build fancy dwellings and boutiques and trendy offices, all of which the developer sells for tidy profits.
Usually, apathy reigns in towns large or small. Except for journalists, virtually nobody attends public meetings until a newspaper article about some outrageous issue catches the eye of local citizens. More often than not, it’s too late to renege on whatever hair-brained project a developer has in mind.
The deal’s done. At which point, the developer goes full speed ahead. Before citizens can say, “Holy $%?!”, things aren’t so nice or quiet in their town anymore.
In America, this sort of hanky-panky dates back at least to 1626, when a Dutch guy named Peter Minuit swindled Indians out of a nice, quiet island for a bunch of beads and trinkets. Today, Manhattan symbolizes the ruthless power of developers, like Donald Trump, over New York City’s public officials and citizens.
Nothing was usual about the way things turned out last month at a Fraser town meeting. The main agenda item involved questions about a backroom deal between the mayor and a developer. Last spring, they agreed to transform a beautiful meadow–originally set aside as open space for public use–into the developer’s cattle ranch for the summer.
It happened fast. The developer of surrounding neighborhoods soon had 200 cows grazing across this meadow. However cockamamie the idea may have sounded to most people, the mayor and developer apparently figured that sticking a cattle herd within spitting distance of the community recreation center and new houses would be viewed as a public benefit. Boy were they wrong.
Traditionally, the meadow’s trails became a mecca for cross country skiers in winter. Hikers and frisbee players enjoyed it in warmer weather. Everybody enjoyed seeing wildlife romp around there until cows arrived in early summer. They were hard to miss whenever you drove through town, especially if your windows were rolled down. A buck-and-pole fence kept the herd from straying onto the highway or into peoples’ yards. By summer’s end, a few cowboys drove the herd out of the meadow but not out of the town’s collective memory.
In October, dozens of Fraserites showed up at a town council meeting to voice their outrage at the developer, who wasn’t there, and the public officials who were there. Something remarkable happened that night.
The town’s elected board heard a litany of complaints from homeowners, business people and longtime residents. Everybody was sick and tired of stinking cow manure and swatting flies that love cow manure. Trying to avoid stepping in it was a common refrain.
After angry citizens spent a couple of hours politely accusing the mayor of making a backroom deal with the developer–a deal that never was discussed at a public meeting and which the town lawyer never signed–board members quietly listened. Then they acted. They voted to trash their quasi-cattle ranching deal with the developer.
The original document was dead in the pasture. A new deal is expected to protect the meadow as open space for people instead of cows. Thanks to a few community watchdogs who spread the word, citizens got “woke.” Democracy prevailed.