Thoughts on the Pirie Property and Bigger Issues

Perhaps Hamilton's purchase of the Pirie Property and the discussion it has raised has a significance beyond its borders.

As with so many issues where one has opinions, and a time constrained (and perhaps in my case skill constrained) opportunity to share it, the Pirie Property Meeting did not (could not have allowed) a public discussion of every detailed point of view.  I have to admit a mix of respect and jealousy when considering the generally intelligent, well thought out, well presented opinions from our community.  Hamilton has some pretty smart people from both sides who have chosen to make this special place home.

I am not sure that restating/refuting numbers, statistics, projections, etc will at this point add much to what in my opinion is a discussion between fundamentally opposing viewpoints.  It seems to me that each person who spoke at the meeting shared a solid piece of common ground, a genuine affection for Hamilton as a place to live, raise kids, “Empty Nest”, and retire.  The difference seems to be in the “WHY”.

I heard a speaker point out that he brought his young family to Hamilton because it was affordable, had good schools, was attractive.  He noted that the Town should purchase the property to add the attributes of senior housing so that people could afford to stay, entry level housing so that his kids could afford to return and raise their families here, and that our schools needed more fields to allow our kids more and better places to play and practice sports.

I am sure that I have paraphrased him liberally in this characterization.   But I think it sums up very well one side of this discussion.  To go with this view, financials both responsible and imaginative can be found to support this point of view.  I’ll label this view of Hamilton as the Balance Sheet View, or “How many square feet of land and building can I buy (in a town with the most parks, best schools, most housing options, most diverse population, and safest neighborhoods), for my hard earned Dollar.”

If I had never been to Hamilton, I might very well have cheered this honest and legitimate point of view.  However, we live in a larger community surrounding Boston, which, for legitimate and noble reasons following the return en masse of our Greatest Generation from WW2, experienced a period of unbridled suburban growth to meet the needs of those who fought for our country and were then ready to give birth to the great American Middle Class.  Without question, in my opinion, this enormous change is at the root of our nation’s modern character, and its prosperity.

But Hamilton is not your average suburban Boston town.  It is not a town, which can be summed up by statistics and Town Assets.  As an outsider from Western Pennsylvania, I have lived in Backbay, Marblehead, Needham, Salem, and now Hamilton.  As a one-time Commercial Lender I have prospected towns from the Cape to Southern New Hampshire, to Westerm Mass.  I have seen town after town around the state where one could squint an eye, look sideways, and with some imagination see what was at one point a classic New England rural community.  Clearly, as one zooms west on the Mass Pike, less and less imagination is required.

And then I look at Hamilton, Essex, Topsfield, Rowley, among others.  By some accident of history, it is possible to spend half an hour or 45 minutes on a commuter rail out of Boston and drive past fields of hay bales and horses,  17th and 18th century houses, and crumbling New England stone walls.  I don’t pretend that it is an “open air museum” but I do see something fragile and increasingly rare.

The Massachusetts Law, which has given our Town the opportunity to take “Right of First Refusal” on the Pirie Property was clearly designed to protect this endangered landscape, not so that every citizen could have a horse farm, but so that in the future our kids and grand kids might hope to take a drive in the country, and, without so much squinting, see what America used to be like, and to do so without visiting airport security on the way.

I have heard and read that the intent of the law is not being argued because the “letter of the law” does not disallow the Town’s action.   I have every confidence that the letter of the law did in fact leave open the Town of Hamilton’s interpretation of what it allows, and I am sure that the holes in the “letter of the law” would be obvious to a recent Law School Graduate.   In fact, I might be trumpeting the use of this law if the developer of the Pirie Property were planning something similar to what I have heard the Town discuss.

The problem I see is that the long term public interest in preserving a shrinking resource, an endangered atmosphere not just of open space, but of historical living character, is at odds with the short term wants of a population with a utilitarian mindset.

When you drive around the North Shore, notice the schools abandoned when one demographic truth became another.  Now imagine, 40 years from now the glut of “senior housing” on the North Shore and what it will be used for when today’s demographic reality morphs into a new one.  The Pirie Property would be a story among so many others of what Hamilton used to be.

We are involved in a global conversation about the environmental impact of human actions, which is framed in terms of 50 years, 100 years.  We talk about age-old concepts of doing without so that our grand kids can inherit some of the good things we still have not destroyed.  Yet, on a town level we would ignore those instincts so that the senior housing we live in is within the borders of Hamilton rather than a couple miles away.  We would squander an endangered resource so that our largely affluent (relative to what we know exists not just countries away but miles away) schools will have better/more sports fields.  If Hamilton wants to do something for the kids, perhaps donating the added maintenance costs of the prospective new fields to the public schools of Lynn might seem more humanitarian and perhaps have more pronounced social outcome.  We want “affordable entry level housing” so we can watch our grandchildren grow up without having to leave our town boundaries.  Again, I see a pretty heavy cost to this idealistic but statistically unlikely benefit.  I foresee my kids living where the opportunity to earn a living presents itself.  I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with eight or so generations in our local cemetery and parents still there whom I would love to see more often.  Ask yourself, if you live in Hamilton, “Were your parents born here?”  Then revisit exactly what price you would put on socially engineering your children’s future home into this community.

My fingers are tired, and if this has been printed, your eyes probably are too.  But it is my hope in writing this that your eyes and minds will also be open to just what we are in the position to lose at this globally invisible moment in history, and how little from a global perspective we stand to gain from losing it.


Andrew Greer

Bay Rd Hamilton



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Andrew Greer June 03, 2013 at 03:36 AM
Thank you for your encouragement Yvonne. I would gladly read up on the alternative plan. Unfortunately no such plan exists. It is easy to assail a plan with an idea. What happens when the plan is defeated and the town buys the land? 10 more years of discussion, meetings, and yes, expensive planning. If the current plan works at $4 million, how profitable will a developer with a much larger mandate and rigorous public scrutiny find that $4 million investment. By the time the town reaches this conclusion, it is not clear to me that the existing real plan and investors will still be there. What is clear, however, is that you view "PRIVATE" as a dirty word and that you are quite happy to shoulder all these risks to our town. I do not and I am not. I really hope that cooler heads prevail and that they show up to vote against this risky and undesirable IDEA. I guarantee you that I will. Andrew Greer
Thinking Out Loud June 03, 2013 at 10:52 AM
And yet another perspective on the Pirie property issue: http://hamilton-wenham.patch.com/blog_posts/community-matters-a08b05eb
Yvonne van Bodengraven June 03, 2013 at 12:09 PM
I do not view "Private" as a dirty word. I just find the signs around town that say "Save Pirie Farm" to be so very misleading. Neither a yes nor a no vote will save Pirie Farm. The alternate plan is to find a combination of conservation land, fields, community housing and trails that works for Hamiton. Remember that the town only had 120 days to bring this opportunity to vote. That's not a lot of time to create a bullet proof plan. It is amazing how much the Town's boards were able to consider in that short amount of time. If that land is purchased by the town then the voters will have time to decide on what the use will be. If no consensus can be reached the land can always be sold as six private lots.
Andrew Greer June 03, 2013 at 12:25 PM
There were some great sentiments in the above perspective. Mr. Burnham has a very healthy outlook with respect to a bigger priority within Hamilton of maintaining our spirit of community. This issue has raised passions on all fronts, clearly my own included. Perhaps out Board of Selectmen might consider this when floating proposals which are virtually guaranteed to divide our community. As for myself, I cannot apologize for my passions and sentiments and the necessity i feel to share them. What I can do is try to remember that I enjoy going to Crosby's and seeing friendly faces who have many points of view other than my own. Andrew Greer
ann minois June 03, 2013 at 05:42 PM
Thank you for your clear, thoughtful views, Mr. Greer. I'm wholeheartedly pro-development and pro-community. The devil is always in the details. Many others who have concerns about this "plan" - which would no doubt change with whatever developer or developers actually ended up taking title post-flip - share your sentiments. Should towns be flipping property using taxpayer funds?


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