Guest columnist Justin Pelland: Hadley should house people, not junk

Ideal Movers and Storage on South Maple in Hadley.

Ideal Movers and Storage on South Maple in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JUSTIN PELLAND

Published: 02-15-2024 8:28 PM

In a recent column, “They paved paradise and put up a storage facility,” [Bulletin, Feb. 9], Aubrey Menard highlighted what is arguably one of Hadley’s most embarrassing truths: The town has no regard for the intrinsic value of land and the importance of planning in land use practices.

According to the town’s master plan, Hadley’s Zoning Ordinance was first adopted in the early 1960s and was designed to promote a business district along Route 9 with the goal of keeping the residential tax base low and preserving the rural character of the remainder of the town. This effectively created two zones: a business/commercial zone and a single-family residential zone. Some 60 years later, the town of Hadley and the surrounding region are very different places, but yet the zoning ordinance remains largely unchanged.

For those, like Menard, who were disappointed to see a three-story storage facility emerge out of one of the most beautiful pieces of land in public view, this lack of planning and foresight on the part of the town of Hadley is inexcusable, especially when you consider the glowing reviews of the facility delivered by members of Hadley’s Planning Board. It would likely frustrate most people to learn that a second facility, as reported by the Gazette, was recently approved on a similarly undeveloped piece of land.

While it takes less than a minute for the Planning Board to formally vote for approval of a project, residents of the town and the broader community have to live with the consequences for years to come.

At a time when the entire nation is in crisis over a lack of housing, it’s irresponsible and arguably negligent for the town of Hadley to continue to approve low-cost, unoccupied containers for junk instead of promoting land uses that benefit the town such as public amenities and sorely needed affordable workforce and senior housing.

The most disappointing part of this problem is that it might all be by design. The Hadley Planning Board does have a few members who are trying to address the issue of housing access and affordability, but these voices are unfortunately in the minority. When the subject of housing comes up, Planning Board meetings are often dominated by vocal members — some of whom have served on the board for decades — expressing strong opposition to new housing of any kind in town.

At one such meeting, the Planning Board discussed the potential for a grant-funded study of new housing along Route 9. Planning Board member Joseph Zgrodnik went as far as to say “I’m afraid if we do form a study, people will take it and run with it ... I don’t even think we should pursue it.”

Zgrodnik went on to say, “Let’s say a portion of the mall … decides to close up and people will say ‘Wow, that’s a wonderful place for apartments. We ought to zone that whole area as apartments,’ but the town of Hadley is not interested in doing something like that.”

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This is a clear admission that some members of the Planning Board have no interest in approving new housing developments and do not want to be challenged on that position, even if the data shows there are tangible benefits to doing so.

This attitude has permeated many of the Planning Board meetings over the last several years, including a series of comments by Planning Board member Michael Sarsynski, who referred to the town of Amherst and UMass as “the blob to the east,” a reference to the 1988 film depicting a deadly blob that slowly subsumes an entire town. This kind of “Hadley first” mentality ignores the fact that our entire local economy is driven in large part by our regional partners, and we wouldn’t enjoy the commercial tax base that we have without the roughly 35,000 students and 13,000 university and college employees who call this area home.

Until residents and members of the public challenge the Hadley Planning Board to overhaul their antiquated zoning ordinances, the town, its residents, and the surrounding community will continue to suffer. The public, frankly, deserves better.

If unchallenged, these Planning Board members will continue to approve storage facilities and other irresponsible uses on land where mixed-use housing and local businesses could have been constructed. The real tragedy is that much of the damage has already been done and generations of people will have to live with the consequences of the Planning Board’s inaction for decades to come.

It’s time for us to stop pretending the housing crisis will fix itself and start taking steps towards proactive and long-term solutions.

Justin Pelland is an architect who lives in Hadley and serves on the town’s Housing & Economic Development Committee.