Netiquette for squares

Netiquette advice usually focuses on affectations and proscriptions considered vital to your success in the digital village by well-meaning web hipsters. They offer advice like: DON’T USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS that’s shouting. You will needlessly provoke your readers and they will RESPOND IN KIND, or like an unapologetic capital-boy I know from the great state of Missouri, become the butt of jokes and an object of derision  Do not top-post. In other words, remove the text from the previous email when you hit the reply button unless your response necessitates context. This is a practice that can keep you out of trouble when you gossip. I know of several government officials from my days as an elected official who regretted the habit. If quote you must, keep it to a minimum or risk being labeled a profligate waster of precious bandwidth. Along the lines of saving bandwidth, do use common short cuts like lol (laugh out loud) or btw (by the way) or my personal favorite WTF. Doing so also saves precious bytes of data and identifies you as a member of the cognoscenti. 😉 Do use emoticons like the one preceding this sentence, which is my way of telling you that I’m being (playfully) ironic. Emoticons are a sub-genre of common short cuts used to express nuances of tone. On-line writing is utterly bereft of non-verbal communication cues. Remember people who divide their attention into nanoseconds (millionths of a second) read it. They type faster than you too. Slip up and you’ll find yourself embroiled in a “flame-war” (a cyber-steel-cage death match). Before you know it, the world has suffered yet another catastrophic loss of bonhomie. lol, ;-), rofl, %-), etc.

The on-line world has produced a new sub-culture with its own folkways but ultimately, there are only two substantive differences between analog and electronic communications: the medium upon which the thoughts are recorded and the speed at which the message can be delivered. Beyond that, the same rules apply to both. If you don’t follow the usual rules for writing and civil conversation in the “real world,” you are extremely unlikely to find greater success in the digital village.

Writing on-line: The purpose of written communication is to convey ideas between people and the basic act is media-agnostic. Therefore, the tried and true rules apply. Failing to write clearly and succinctly invites confusion. Failing to respect your readers’ feelings and intelligence creates barriers between your words and your message. Forgetting that once you write it, readers own the meaning,will result in sloppy writing.  If you’re not careful all you end up doing is assembling a collection of words no one will read.

For me, netiquette means thinking about what I’m going to say before I say it. It means giving the same care to electronic communications that I give to something I would submit for publication or to a teacher or a boss. It means keeping it short and sweet. This is all the more so important when you consider the average person spends less than 10 seconds on a web page before hitting the back button. That reminds me of another rule, if you need to write more than three lines in an email, set up a meeting or pick up the phone. That way, there’s no permanent record of the conversation–especially if you’re a bomb thrower like me.

Meanwhile back at the ranch . . .

About a week ago I was admitted to the hospital for severe blockages in two of my coronary arteries. The doctors inserted three stents in my heart in two separate procedures. The surgeon told my wife “it was the real deal.” He said I was a time bomb, armed and ready to blow. Those cautionary words notwithstanding, my prognosis is great. So long as I take care of myself (you know the litany, exercise, lose weight, lower my blood pressure, and avoid fatty foods), I will live to be an old man.

On the way to Brigham and Women's Shapiro Cardiac Center
On the way to Brigham and Women’s Shapiro Cardiac Center

I felt awful for the entire summer but didn’t go to the doctor because we did not have health insurance (that’s the subject of another story). Back in late May my son asked to plant a garden. We hadn’t done that in a long time, so I said, sure. He and I measured out an area in our back yard and set to work. When healthy, it would have taken me maybe two or three hours of to turn over the soil. I found I couldn’t turn the shovel more than two or three times without feeling sick. Sessions lasted 10 or 15 minutes and ended on the couch with the air conditioner on full blast. My promise kept me at it but that project took over a month to finish.

Some visual irony: Watch your step.

Things got worse from there. Come July exertion became increasingly more difficult. The slightest activity left me feeling like I’d just finished running 10 miles in 90 degree heat with a hangover. Walking like a New Yorker gave way to a more Southern pace, which gave way to “slow down I don’t feel well.” By the summer’s end I broke out into a sweat just shuffling to the mailbox.

All that ended last week thanks to my wife. She found us healthcare. Thanks also go to the big guy in the sky who invited me back for a second act.

There I admitted it. Please don’t run away screaming cliché and complaining that yet another guy has a brush with mortality and finds God.

God found me. The idea that there’s some guy in the sky with a grand plan pisses me off on many levels.  Without resorting to the bullshit faith arguments, I want someone to explain to me how  a supreme being can possibly have enough bandwidth to keep the sun shining and the planets spinning and then pick and choose the joyful and tragic moments in everyone’s life, every day, and every year since creation?   And why me?  How the do I fit into the divine plan? Why waste single byte of bandwidth on me when there are countless humans tragically suffering every moment of every day?  Why did I survive coronary heart disease when my father, his brothers, his father, and countless Cohens from the days of yore all dropped dead young?

I Had a Dream

God got mixed up in the narrative against my will. Dr. Martin Luther King isn’t the only one who had a dream. Just prior to the hospitalization, I dreamed about a conversation with my imaginary literary adviser about an equally imaginary novel. We talked about story arc and themes and the like. When the question arose about what to name my protagonist, the man across the table said, call him Tolah. He spelled it out slowly and repeatedly to make sure I would remember when I woke up.

Tolah, what’s a tolah? I opened my eyes the next morning to the Google search form and t-o-l-a-h spilling from my fingertips. It means worm. Not just any worm, cue the reverb and dramatic music, the crimson worm.

The Crimson Worm

Ancient cloth makers crushed the shells to dye priestly garments red. When it lays its eggs, the mother creates a red shell around itself. After the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the mother’s living body until they are strong enough to break out of the shell. The word worm appears numerous times in the BIBLE but tolah only in “Psalm 22”  ‘But I am a worm, [emphasis added] and no man; /A reproach of men, and despised by the people.'” (ll. 6-7).

What’s more, religious scholars consider this poem the bridge between the New and Old Testaments and Judaism and Christianity.  It foreshadows Jesus Christ. According to Matthew and Mark, JC utters the very same words upon his death on the cross.

This did not (and still does not) rest easily on my mind. I turned away from God and organized religion a long time ago. Too many unanswered question and too much unassuaged human suffering for me to believe in a supreme being who knows all, sees all, has a plan he won’t share, and who refuses to give a prime time interview with Barbara Walters to establish his bona fides.

Psalm 22

The research pointed to “Psalm 22” so I couldn’t ignore it. Something inexplicable happened when I read it. The narrator of the poem begins with  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? /Why are you so far from helping Me.” (ll 1-2).

I cried from the first sentence to the last. A profound watershed of relief, a phenomenon I think some people call grace, passed through my being. “Psalm 22” was an ancient blues written at the dawn of the Abrahamic religions. Like all blues its words gave shape to the amorphous and seemingly unending suffering of the last five years and in so doing robbed it of its power.

Indeed, I could have written “Psalm 22.” I have cursed God many times since my wife was wrongly and cruelly bullied out of her job of 22 years as the executive director of a legal non-profit organization by former president. He is an unrepentant and  sociopathic lawyer from Washington, DC who had a reputation within the non-profit legal world as cruel person who enjoyed ruining executive directors.  Upon taking the reigns of the organization’s board, he systematically destroyed her life’s work.

We all hear those stories about bystanders who stand around watching as some hapless victim suffers at the hands of an antagonist. That same thing happened. some 20 directors watched him do it and failed to lift a finger to help. That alone would have been difficult enough but it was only the beginning of what can be described as a first-world hell on earth. So much of what we worked hard to accomplish unraveled.

Somebody Got to Help Me

As Sonny Boy Williamson, a/k/a Rice Miller sang “Ya got to help me, I can’t do it all by myself.” Shortly after that dream, my wife, who’d basically given up on MassHealth, found one last burst of resolve. That led to a nameless state employee who waved an administrative magic wand and approved the application on the spot. The insurance cards arrived in in days and very shortly after that, I was lying in a room at Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro Cardiovascular Center recovering from life saving surgery.

It was a fucking miracle. Everything about me changed. The color of my skin changed. I felt more alert. I literally wanted to dance an Irish jig on hospital room floor with the tubes and electronic leads dangling from my body.

IMG_1354Looking at me this minute, you would never guess that a week ago, I was one strenuous step, one blood-vessel-dialating emotional outburst, one moment away from dying. Don’t get me wrong. I feel blessed. Once the wounds in wrist heal, I’m free to take off my seat belt an move about the cabin. I will see my kids grow up. I still have an opportunity to accomplish some of my unfinished goals.

Yet at the same time I am confused. There is no lengthy and rigorous convalescence, no crucible of pain to make me appreciate the gift of life. The transformation has been so complete and the absence of any perceptible insult to my body from surgery so minimal that I am having a lot of difficulty reconciling what could have been with what is. Never mind the people who will hear me say, I almost died of coronary heart disease and I have three stents in my heart.” They will never connect their perception with the truth.

Chaplain, My Chaplain

Before leaving the hospital I called the Brigham and Women’s chaplain service. God wouldn’t exit the stage. He stood there demanding acknowledgment. Imagine that? The bastard wanted credit.

That sucked because I’d I already devised an intellectually plausible explanation. To wit, I must have heard the tolah story at some point in my life. My mind simply pulled the engram out of deep storage at the right moment. It was Bobbi’s perseverance led to finding the right person at MassHealth. Having studied the heart disease, I knew the signs and symptoms and listened to the warning signs. I was smart enough to go to the doctor and just plain lucky it wasn’t too late.

Hoisted by my own petard, intellectual honesty demanded I hear from the other side. As evidence goes that explanation is based on guesses. The worst part is they stand on equal footing with divine intervention. At least they do for those who are willing to look with an open mind. Therefore, I called the Brigham and Women’s chaplain service.

20 minutes later, a charming and nattily dressed man named Enos Gardnier, Bishop Gardnier, as he named himself arrived in my hospital room.

After establishing myself as a non-judgmental atheist, I shared the story of my dream and caught him up on all that had happened. He listened. He laughed heartily at my jokes. When I concluded my monologue, he said simply, and I’m paraphrasing, you’ve been given a gift and it doesn’t matter why or from whom?

Then he said something that really made me think. God doesn’t always save people for themselves but for others. He asked me what I planned to with my gift. How will I live my life going forward?  I’m thinking to myself gift? Whaddya mean gift? When I come home from the hospital, all those problems will still be there.

He talked about God a bit, in a gentle way. In particular he told me about Abraham, whom he said lived as a pagan but received God’s grace nevertheless because he lived life according to a clear set of principles. God rewarded him for the effort. But mostly Bishop Gardnier returned to the themes of gift and service to others.

I thanked him and promised to read about Abraham in the BIBLE, with an open mind, which, thanks to a great iPad app, I’ve been doing.  So far, it’s been taxing to keep my mind open but I’m trying.

Post hoc

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase which means, “After this, therefore because of this.” In rhetoric it’s an informal logical fallacy used to refute poorly researched and understood points. In other words, the dog barked right before I fell off my stepladder and broke my leg, therefore dogs must be bad luck. People draw this conclusion all the time.

I really don’t know what to make of this series of events. Here are the facts: My life has sucked 90-year-old-man-saggy-balls for the last five years. I was sick. I had a dream with a symbol that led me to a bible passage that made me feel good and also made me feel hopeful for the future. Immediately following that I got health insurance in the nick of time, which prevented my untimely death from coronary artery disease.


  • God spoke directly to me through that dream?
  • I experienced his grace?
  • The ball sucking, which by the way isn’t over yet, was all part of his master plan for me and is almost over?
  • My unconscious mind rescued me in a time of need?
  • I’m one lucky son of bitch?

I don’t know? The only thing about which I’m positive is that I am one lucky son of a bitch.

Music reviews coming soon

Music reviews. I’m itching to write about music again. If you want your music project reviewed or maybe a profile of your band, send me your press kit and links to your music via the contact form.

I’ve written a fair number of CD reviews for national and regional publications over the years, including ROLLING STONE , THE BOSTON HERALD, and THE BOSTON PHOENIX.

While I’m especially interested in Blues, Jazz, and Roots music, I am always looking for interesting work in any genre. I love music that blurs lines and challenges expectations.

So I woke up with the word Tolah on my mind

So I woke up with the word tolah on my mind and googled it.

  • It’s a Vedic unit of measurement equal to +/- 11.6 grams or  3/8 of a troy ounce.
  • It’s a family name.
  • It’s a red grub-like worm used by makers of religious garments in biblical times to dye cloth . In particular it was used by the makers of various Jewish religious garments.
  • The word appears  several times in THE BIBLE and seems to be a nexus between the OLD and NEW TESTAMENTS.

How’d that get there? It came in a dream. This man and I sat at a table in a library talking about the difficulties I was having with my writing. I told him I was tired and afraid I’d never get it together, and that I felt out of ideas, and that I was despairing that my lazy bum, no goodnick first novel was never going to get out the door and that I was worried whether I would ever get my writing career moving.

He listened with a reassuring smile. Then we turned to my next project. I didn’t know I had a next project. He knew the story. He enveloped my hands in his and said, “Name the protagonist Tolah. He spelled it out several times slowly T-o-l-a-h like he was talking to a slow learner.

I woke up with a compulsion to google.

For the record, I have no conscious recollections of the word tolah, or of its various meanings and associations.

The biblical associations piqued my interest. The word “tolah” (as in worm) is used in several biblical passages–in particular “Psalm” 22:6, “But I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people”

I looked up “Psalm 22.” Not to sound melodramatic but I could have written that poem this morning. It speaks directly to my current condition and state of mind.  My wife and I have been struggling with the aftermath of  having her career and health ravaged by the president of her board of directors. He was a workplace bully who assaulted her, emotionally tortured her and concocted a web of lies that resulted in turning the entire board of directors and all her colleagues against her.

There was nothing I could do to help. And because I was a stay-at-home dad, I couldn’t bridge the financial gap. Most of the time I feel alone, afraid, miserable, and beset from every conceivable angle by the troubles of the world.

We’ve struggled to keep our house and to pay our bills. We’ve struggled to provide for our kids. We’ve struggled to understand why this happened even though we’d done all the right things. We’ve searched in vain for a path through these difficulties that leads us to firmer ground.

To paraphrase the psalm, “But I am a worm,”  22:6 “I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent” 22:2 “For trouble is near; for there is none to help” 22:11 “My strength is dried up . . . and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.” 22:15

“But” there’s always a but, even though the narrator complains that God abandoned him, he begs, “be not thou far from me, O Lord, O my strength, haste thee to help me.” 22.19  And the text goes on to say those who seek God’s strength will not only endure they will flourish, “The meek shall eat and be satisfied” 22:26, to which the atheist in me says, bullshit.

So on the one hand,  “Psalm 22” is a woe-is-me complaint about how God abandoned the narrator to his earthly troubles. On the other, apparently God is the only solution to the problem.

Likewise, many people regard “Psalm 22” which begins with the words “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?”as a foreshadowing of the moment of Jesus Christ’s death during which Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 say he cries the very same words just before dying.

In that moment, Jesus passes in pain and torment with doubt and disappointment on his lips and yet that supposedly saved humanity from perdition.

Fucking religion and its paradoxes!.

This why I jokingly call myself an Ivory Soap atheist, which is to say I’m 99 and 44/100ths sure there’s no God.

How does God work? Why didn’t he save Jesus? Why does he abandon “Psalm 22’s” narrator to despair?  How can he countenance the evils done by the people who organize in his name?  I do not understand how he allows all this suffering. I do not  know why he won’t speak more plainly to us. That’s why I stopped going to church and why I’m a  Zen Buddhist. There’s nothing to believe except what is really there.

Fucking religion. Just when I think I have it all figured out, last night’s dream comes along with an answer I don’t like.

There’s no reason why I should wake up this morning with the word T-o-l-a-h on my mind. I suppose one could argue having read various bits and pieces of THE BIBLE and having been to church many times in my life, my unconsciousness mind grabbed that word out of  deep storage and gave me a mystery to solve to help me find strength in trying times.

But there’s always a “but.” It doesn’t feel that way. What if God came to me last night and said, in effect, “I know things suck. I know you’re mad at me but, trust me, everything is going to be all right.”

What the hell am I supposed to do with this?

Alex Rodriguez Is expected to play while appealing suspension

Alex Rodriguez is expected to play while appealing suspension. I have mixed feelings about A-Rod’s legacy but Major League Baseball needs to look in the mirror when it comes to performance enhancing drugs and  let him finish out his career. Rodriguez played during the steroid era and used performance enhancing drugs during the don’t ask, don’t tell days of the late 90s and early 2ks. He was one of the hitters who super-charged the offensive game and in so doing rewarded the owners with packed stadiums and increased TV viewership.

The Game of Baseball, which is to say the business of baseball, reaped untold benefit$ from A-rod’s performances, from the Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa home run race , from Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron’s career home run total, and from the many steroid era hitters who swung their way into the record books.

Now the party’s over. Baseball woke up hungover in a strange bed and decided to chew off an arm to slip away quietly instead having morning sex with the very questionable hookup nuzzled under its arm. Baseball drove down Soi Cowboy on the way to the airport in an attempt to relive the sex tour before heading home and realized without the booze and neon, it’s just a filthy street full of dive bars and hookers in a third world country. The Great and Powerful Oz turned out to be a guy behind the curtain with a syringe in his buttock.

Pick your cliche’d (or mixed) metaphor. Fans have complicated feelings about high performance and feel cheated. When we bite into that grilled sausage and pepper on a roll or hot dog at the park, we don’t want to know how it was made. We just want to experience the sensation of flavor.

P.E.D.s have always been about the money. When the sluggers were putting butts in seats,  Baseball embraced unprincipled drug policies that rewarded their use with huge contracts and adoring fans. Now it worries whether the steroid hangover will translate into lost revenue, so it pretends to be outraged about P.E.D. use and to prove it is persecuting Alex Rodriguez.

Maybe MLB can learn something about fan behavior from my own experiences as an, uh . . .  ebullient youth, no matter how badly I felt while curled up next to the toilet wondering whether to stick my face or my ass into the bowl, I still went out the next night and did it all over again.

Major League Baseball needs to own its role in encouraging P.E.D.s. Instead of scapegoating Alex Rodriguez. I’d like to see MLB set up an Aparthied-style truth and reconciliation commission which offers immunity in exchange for the truth.

History regards witch hunts unkindly. The persecutors almost always end up looking bad. Truth and context will help the game more than show trials.

Without the truth we’ll never fully understand the extent to which performance enhancing drugs were used, which will cast a darker pall on the game than an asterisk next to a player’s name indicating he took performance enhancing drugs.

Only then can Baseball create a forward-looking and sensible regulatory structure to deal with subsequent use.

So I say Free Alex Rodriguez. Let they guy finish out his career in peace and let history judge him instead of the hypocritical owners of Major League Baseball.

Article 10 Post Mortem

WhiteBarnFarmTown Meeting voted to Indefinitely Postpone Article 10 on Monday. The Citizen’s Petition’s sponsor Leo Immonen, a long time Wrentham government official and tireless booster of the community, proposed to help our commercial farmers, particularly the White Barn Farm, build financially sustainable farming operations by adding a new definition to the bylaws that allowed them to operate, at their discretion, “food service(s), programs and revenue-generating events such as tours, dinners, weddings, and musical performances.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Immonen and White Barn Farm owners Chris Kantlehner and Christy Raymond gave impassioned and moving speeches in support of the measure.

I believe very few people at Town Meeting were untouched by their pathos and vision. The majority of the people in town support the spirit of the proposition and very much want for White Barn Farm to succeed.

Unfortunately, bylaws are not written for good people like Chris Kantlehner and Christy Raymond, whose character and intentions are impeccable, they’re written because we can’t trust everyone else to be like them.

Town Meeting recognized that the bylaw was flawed because it offered neither regulatory guidelines nor a transparent mechanism for including abutters in the decision to add new uses.

With that in mind, I hope sincerely that the White Barn Farm, owners sharpen their pencil and work with the Planning Board to write a bylaw or a set of regulations that permits those accessory uses while including checks and balances to protect the neighbors’ rights and concerns.

My municipal law is a bit rusty but I’m pretty sure the Planning Board can sponsor a more meticulously worded bylaw for the very next Special Town Meeting.

In the meanwhile, perhaps the farm’s principals, the abutters, and the town can work out a temporary arrangement to allow them to pilot test the proposed accessory uses?

Article 9 naysayers barely hold off a vigorous campaign

Once again both the abuters and the developer failed to achieve a conclusive resolution on the issue of  how to develop the Lorusso property sitting on the Route 1/495 interchange.

In the meanwhile, the community continues to suffer the fall out from this very noxious debate as empty-nesters and preservationists battle against families with young children for how to fund the schools and other municipal services.

It’s time to step out of the echo bunkers and engage in a productive discussion that acknowledges neither party will achieve total victory.

Last time, Mr. Lorusso was overwhelmingly defeated. This time opponents of Article 9 barely held off a vigorous attempt by members of the community and the developer to rezone the parcel to C2.

According to the Wrentham Clerk’s office  425 votes were recorded for Article 9. In a stunning reversal from the results of the owner’s last attempt to rezone that property, the yay-sayers garnered  247 yes votes  to the nay-sayer’s 178 no votes. Nevertheless, state law requires a 2/3 majority for zoning amendments which means the initiative fell short by about 34 votes.

The town clerk’s office unofficially estimates approximately 500 registered voters checked in at the beginning of the meeting. which suggests a net loss of 75 voters by the time Town Meeting took up Article 9.

Because of the Warrant’s size, the high likelihood the meeting would be continued, and Financial Committee Chair Jerry McGovern’s unavailability on Tuesday, June 11, Moderator Keith Billian took the FinCom articles out-of-order. That put off action on Article 9 until much later in the evening.

It’s not clear who left or why, however many supporters believe it was parents with school aged children, whom they reckoned as yes votes.

There were presentations given by the Economic Development Committee, the developer’s representative, Amy O’Brien, a vocal abutter and naysayer, and proponent Diedre Foley.

In addition the Moderator took comments from abutters and which point then someone moved the question. That deprived Town Meeting of the opportunity to vet the competing facts and suss out more concessions from the developer.

The sad thing is for all the energy spent on this issue, nothing really got resolved. No one believes the developer will give up on his quest to rezone. Neither does anyone think the Madison Street neighborhood will change its mind.

It’s time for the community to step in and articulate a vision for that property which protects the abutters interests and allows the property owner to develop the parcel to its highest use. Both parties have to grow up and accept less than what they want.

We need to get all the parties together and find ways to build consensus instead of waiting for the developer, the abutters, and the Wrentham-is-a-country-town-love-it-or-leave-it crowd to find common ground on their own. That is not going to happen.

It’s a failure on the part of both the abutters and the developer to strike a bargain. The former have to accept some consequences for buying homes in such close proximity to a major highway interchange (regardless of what they thought the day they signed the deed) and the land owner needs to make a credible and sincere effort to mitigate the impact upon the Madison Street residents.

Otherwise,  the debate over the Lorusso property will continue acting like a bad hot dog. It will keep on repeating until the community finds a way to keep it in our stomach long enough to digest. But rest assured, it’s eventually coming out the other end.

Vote Yes on Article 9

Note: Wrentham’s Annual Town Meeting is scheduled for 7:30pm Monday, June 10 at King Philip Regional High School. Registered voters can participate. Get a copy of the Warrant

I strongly urge Wrentham voters to vote yes on Article 9. Wrentham’s Economic Development Committee has put together an Article 9 Q & A that explains many of the issues. It is a reasonable place from which to begin your own analysis.

For me there are two things to consider, one practical and one philosophical. As a practical matter, long-term flat growth and annually increasing expenses have created an ever widening gap between municipal revenue and expenses that cannot be bridged with spending cuts.

The greatest effect of this phenomenon has been on our children’s education. I’ve seen this first hand at both the Elementary school and at the High School. Unless we figure out a way to close the gap this will continue to worsen.

On-going residential development will continue to exert downward pressure on our budgets. There are several large scale residential subdivisions actively under development right now. They will increase our population by 160+ new families.  Since most people have at least two children that means our school tax burden will increase in the neighborhood of $900k a year.

Unless we want the deterioration of our children’s education to continue, we need to find additional sources of revenue. Relief won’t come from slashing expenses. The money will come from increased tax revenue, whether residential or commercial.

Detractors kvetch about traffic. They decry the loss of the town’s “rural” character. They say there are already many acres currently zoned for business, therefore, we should draw a line in the sand.

The number of other properties zoned a certain way have nothing to do with a specific parcel or opportunity. Every land owner has the right to dispose of his or her property according to individual circumstances.

As to the rural character argument, I respectfully remind those who make it, every square inch of Wrentham was owned by somebody the day each of us arrived in town. That land was not purchased to give us a good view or a certain lifestyle.  And don’t forget someone developed your property so you could live on it. That means a developer cut down trees, displaced wildlife or put houses where there were once farms.

Believe me, I get it. I cried the day I drove down Upper Union Street and saw those beautiful three hundred year old trees lying on the ground in pieces. And now the nuns have displaced a gorgeous field with acres of  ugly solar panels. I agree abutters and the community should be involved in fair and transparent discussions about land use. I agree we should have rules that compel property owners to consider their neighbors’ interests when developing the land. But I only own the property on which my house sits.

In the end, approving the zoning change is the right thing to do. The increased tax revenue will shore up eroding budgets. And, we have no right to hold the owners assets hostage in perpetuity because we don’t like anything they propose and we can’t afford to buy them out.

Changing the underlying zoning does not abdicate our rights to shape the finished product. The special permit process enumerates strict requirements for development which take into account the best interests of the abutters and the community by law.

The resulting finished product will reflect the rights and concerns of all the stakeholders. Just show up at the Planning Board meetings, ask a lot of questions, and speak up.

Vote no on Article 10

Note: Wrentham’s Annual Town Meeting is scheduled for 7:30pm Monday, June 10 at King Philip Regional High School. Registered voters can participate. Get a copy of the Warrant

In my mind, there’s no debating the underlying motivation for Article 10 on the upcoming Wrentham Town Meeting Warrant. Both the community and the “farmers” will benefit from economically viable farm operations. Likewise, I appreciate the efforts of the people who proposed it and their supporters. Thank you for your time and talent to make a better Wrentham.

For me the question is not about reflexively thwarting changes to our zoning bylaws or whether to permit the uses implied by the new definition but whether Article 10 is the right vehicle to accomplish the goal.

The devil is in the language:

“Agricultural Accessory Uses. Food service, programs and revenue-generating events such as tours, dinners, weddings, and musical performances, which are appropriate in scale to the premisses and any surrounding residential area, including the preparation and serving of food and beverages for such events. These accessory uses are to supplement the income from the agricultural use of land as exempted from regulations or restrictions in zoning bylaws as defined in Section 3. Chapter 40A of Massachusetts General Laws. Adequate off-street parking must be provided.”

The new Agricultural Accessory Use definition gives our agricultural use landowners broad discretion to add vaguely defined accessory uses without without having to consult with their neighbors. The proposed amendment as written raises too many unanswered questions:

  • What constitutes a program?
  • What exactly is a “revenue-generating” event?
  • How do we define “appropriate to scale”
  • How do we define adequate parking?
  • Can landowners build permanent food service and preparation facilities, a/k/a  a restaurant or commercial kitchen?
  • What percentage of the income must be derived from the original agricultural use?
  • What recourse does the community or the town have if there’s a disagreement with the landowner’s judgment?

Without language that spells out in detail the uses and requirements described in the new definition, the terms described therein rest at the precipice of a very slipper slope.

It’s not a stretch to worry that this zoning amendment creates a temptation to add accessory uses that may eventually pave the way for businesses that are farms in name only. So instead of preserving the farms we may actually create the environment that leads to their eventual demise.

Further, the agricultural use goes beyond growing crops for sale. And they are permitted by right in all of our residential neighborhoods.

Such a permissive definition also creates a temptation for other property owners to declare agriculture as their land’s primary use and then, by right, add any number of the loosely described accessory uses–all with no recourse available to abutters or the town except a civil suit.

It’s been suggested that M.G.L. 40A §3 safeguards the community from such abuses but not really. Again, the devil is in the language. The Commonwealth prescribes income derived from non-farming activity as follows. During June through September or the harvest season of the agricultural product grown on the land, owners or lessees must make 25% of their revenue from products grown on the land.

That means during the growing season the other 75% of their operational income can come from any of the vaguely defined accessory uses described in Article 10. For the rest of the year, “farmers” can make 100% of their income from anything else permissible under local zoning.

Trusting our farming families is not the issue. Indeed, I know personally or through respected mutual acquaintances the owners and operators of Wrentham’s large-scale farms.  They are nice people and good neighbors and valuable members of our community. I trust them.

But property owners’ and aubtters’ needs don’t always fit hand in glove. And given that we make decisions about where we live based on the zoning of the moment, we need  an impartial permitting process to insure a fair and transparent conversation about adding new uses.

No land owner, including our farmers, should be exempt from the requirement to apply for zoning variances or to the Planning Board to add or change uses just because we trust a particular group or because we hope to preserve the last vestiges of our agricultural heritage.

Therefore, I urge people to vote no on Article 10.

An observation about zoning bylaws

An observation about zoning bylaws: we all agree they’re never perfect and whether we own the property in question or not, we hope to organize the rules in ways that benefit our own ideas about where we live or our own financial needs.

Having spent over six years on the Wrentham Planning Board, I have noticed abutters and the community tend to think of zoning bylaws as a rigid set of rules for holding landowners to prescribed uses. This seems especially true of residential property owners who live near the edges of commercial land.  Property owners, developers or business owners in particular, most often think of zoning bylaws as an obstacle to maximizing a  return on their investments.

Both are true after a fashion but I’ve grown to think of zoning as something else entirely. They mark a place in a sometimes contentious, always boring conversation among the people of a community about what we were, what we are, and what we hope to become.

The stakes are high because land and buildings are money disguised as dirt, rocks, plants, and building materials. Even so, we’re fortunate to have a land use laws that strive to balance the interests of the various parties equitably.

That conversation takes place at Planning Board meetings, Zoning Board meetings, Town Meeting, in neighborhood groups, and in the local press.

There are many things I dislike about the process. People act out of fear. They seldom educate themselves sufficiently to talk about the issues intelligently. They can be blind to logic. They can be excruciatingly cruel to their neighbors and government officials. And they hold grudges.

But in places like Wrentham, MA we have the right to have the conversation and the little guy has as much chance of prevailing as the big guy.