A Community of Sheep


(This 952nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 21, 2009.)


Sadly, our sixth freedom is the freedom to bear false witness. Never mind the ninth commandment: lying has become a basic tool of discourse today. The adage, "People may not believe you at first, but tell a lie again and again and they will soon come around," is too accurate. Add "in the glossiest of forms" and you have the kind of political action that is strangling our modern society.


Consider in this regard the open space proposals that were voted down in Amherst in 2007 and in East Aurora in 2008, despite the facts supporting those proposals. Taxes produced by new homes do not meet the cost of town services: an independent study for the Amherst Industrial Development Agency found the town's expenses per housing unit are $1.12 for every dollar taken in by taxes. And withholding land from development, even factoring in the costs associated with maintaining that land, would cost less than the costs associated with supporting that land if developed: the Amherst planning director analyzed that town's proposal and came up with annual savings of over $350,000.


The situation in East Aurora is similar, as it is nationally. John Crompton of the American Planning Association speaks to this issue: "Cost of Community Services Analyses consistently report that over a wide range of residential densities, and especially in rapidly growing communities, the public costs associated with residential development exceed the public revenues that accrue from it. The emerging prevailing view is that few developments generate sufficient tax payments to pay their way." Crompton calls this "The New Municipal Math" and offers dozens of examples of savings through setting aside land for open and park use. Crompton's Report is on the web at: www.holmdeltownship-nj.com/filestorage/1061/PropertyValue.pdf.

Those are, of course, just the fiscal issues. Overcrowding, increased traffic, and the loss of wild places, natural resources and farmland are equally important.


Why then did the bond issues fail? Slick and very expensive ad campaigns - $100,000 in Amherst, $33,000 in East Aurora - were mounted by two groups, the Realtors Political Action Committee and the Realtors Action Committee.


Two basic ad claims were patently false:


1.     Violators would be prosecuted for accessing any of the land protected by the programs.


2.     Land would be removed from the tax rolls.


And two other claims were seriously misleading:


3. There would be little benefit to taxpayers.


4. The proposal was poorly planned.


What is especially interesting about this local situation is that it contradicts the stated posture of the National Association of Realtors. The Winter 2009 issue of its national journal, "On Common Ground", is devoted to Land Conservation. An editorial in that issue states, "At all scales - from establishing city parks to preserving farmland, from addressing sprawl in rural communities to protecting wilderness on public lands - providing and preserving open lands are vital to the health of communities and the environment."


This week on June 23 a group of East Aurora homeowners will appear before State Supreme Court Judge Gerald Whalen to raise issues associated with what they feel has been an abuse of justice.


It turns out that those realtors' committees also falsified information they were required to report under state election laws and the court filing supports the complainants. They made dozens of campaign finance law violations, the most troubling their complete lack of transparency about the source of their funding.


There is much of interest in this court case. First, the lies in those mailings are not mentioned. No recourse is available to right those wrongs: false witness to the public is perfectly legal.


Second, the complainants had appealed to the appropriate Boards of Elections for relief under these statutes. Those bodies have simply sat on the requests delaying them until would carry no meaning.


We should understand what is going on here. The dollar amounts invested in the defeat of these initiatives are way out of proportion to the amounts usually committed to campaigns. These groups brought major outside resources to bear on local initiatives that cannot be matched by the initiatives' grassroot-level supporters. Thus such proposals are defeated piecemeal.


None of this excuses us, however: we are a community of sheep, willingly led off a cliff.-- Gerry Rising