Friday, September 3, 1999
Facing Vandalism Squarely
Is it my imagination or has there been a disturbing increase in vandalism in Carlisle lately? Just read this week's police blotter and you'll note some disturbing entries. Perhaps it's not that there has been an increase in the number of acts of vandalism in town as much as there has been an increase in intensity. The acts I'm referring to are not instances of spray-painted stop signs or bashed mailboxes, but rather trashed cemeteries, defaced school buildings and, most recently, the destruction of private property. These latest acts have caused me to reevaluate my attitude towards vandalism.
Over a year ago, when a few students went on a spray-painting spree up at the Carlisle Public School, I was dismayed but chalked it up to end-of-the-year hijinks. I thought that as long as the perpetrators were caught, made to pay for their damages and perhaps required to put in a little "elbow grease" time, I, as a taxpayer, would be satisfied. After all, who did they hurt?
More recently, however, I have come to realize that, all too often, vandalism is not a victimless crime. Shortly after the rampage at Green Cemetery last spring, I spoke to a woman whose late husband's headstone had been one of the targets, and she was devastated. Even though her common sense contradicted her, she couldn't help taking it personally. Last week, a friend's house, car and grounds were covered in obscenities during an early morning attack by vandals. To say she and her family feel violated is an understatement. They are shattered, as is their sense of security in their own home.
Before we can stem what may be a rising tide of vandalism in town, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions, among them: why the increase in anger and violence that marks these latest acts of vandalism? In order to face this problem effectively, we need to drop any cavalier attitudes we have and admit that these are not victimless crimes and they do occur very close to home.
Can Housing Be Afforded?
A number of groups have a stake, present or potential, in Carlisle's housing. These stakeholders include most of the present residents who live in this attractive town; town employees who would gain from having affordable homes closer to their place of employment; and developers who hope to make profits from the building and sale of homes. Their projects mean jobs for construction workers and others. Ultimately, there may be political prizes to be won.
Most of the present residents want to preserve the town as it now is. In the past, by attracting gifts of land and by using zoning and environmental laws, the residents have usually prevailed. Now, however, the state has undertaken, under the acronym of LIP (Local Initiative Program), to provide incentives and reduce or eliminate procedural obstacles to home construction. To invoke a stick as well as a carrot, the state applies a ten percent yardstick: if a town's proportion of affordable housing does not begin to approach the level of ten percent, the program provides legal grounds for releasing interested private contractors from most zoning restrictions and for giving them a chance to undertake construction under a more flexible comprehensive building permit.
Carlisle has only 1.2 percent of its living space in affordable housing, and thus it appears particularly vulnerable to the LIP. On the face of it, the result could be that lands previously barred from development would now be opened to subdivision into smaller lots. The operating assumption seems to be that past fears of health dangers were greatly exaggerated, perhaps only a cover for "snob zoning."
Carlisle is too small a jurisdiction to question state authority lightly. Last April, a briefing was arranged with state officials, also with representatives of nearby towns [Bob Rothenberg, Mosquito, April 30, 1999]. At this session, represented by Kate Racer, the agenda was to discuss what Carlisle could do to make its peace with the state. Ms. Racer allowed that immediate ten percent compliance would not be expected if a clear commitment and a good faith effort were made. When asked about provision for senior citizens, she stressed that the aim was instead to promote affordable family housing. The speakers at the meeting emphasized that the keys to the success or failure of LIP programs were "the importance of site location and planning, strong partnerships with developers, respect for political considerations and support of abutters."
This stress on partnership with developers and on "political considerations" suggests a contrast with the environmental, non-partisan views widely held in Carlisle. The title of LIP, too, appealing to "initiative," seems to carry some ideological baggage, though Racer avowed that the state does not expect any community to magically transform itself.
The issues here lie, literally, far beneath the surface. Carlisle's existing water and sewage arrangements are unique in their dependence on individual compliance. In the 1990 U.S. census, 83 towns or cities in Middlesex County reported their water and sanitation arrangements. All locales except Shirley (3.1%) and Carlisle (2.4%) had their water supplied by public or private company source by percentages in the double digits (or in four cases, 100%). The figures for percentage of sewage treated publicly were slightly more irregular, with ten towns in single-digit percentages. (One was Carlisle, at 1.7%)
It may be that Carlisle has been overcautious in its scale of test levels required. But if there is doubt about the test standards, surely the proper procedure would be to investigate using standard test procedures and employing disinterested experts to render a public decision. The rules should not be changed simply by administrative fiat.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito