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Thinking Outside the Box
Wet My Beak!
Dr. Charles Ormsby

“This is my neighborhood. You and your friends should show me some respect. You should let me wet my beak a little.” - The Godfather II

Yes, wet our beaks a little, to the tune of $2.0 to $2.5 million. That is the amount of respect the Town of North Andover wants to receive from Ozzy Properties for the privilege of making desired improvements to what had been the Lucent complex. That amount, and maybe some free office space, a parcel of land for another municipal building and a few other miscellaneous considerations. Basically, whatever the town can get. Since the amount of tribute is yet to be determined, I will subsequently refer to it as MM, which the reader can interpret as “Multi-Millions” or “Mucho Moolah.”

What did North Andover do to deserve this respect? Well, nothing really. The MM is to convince selectmen that they should support Ozzy Properties’ request to amend our zoning bylaws so that they can develop what they refer to as Osgood Landing. The proposed development has a number of wonderful features. Among these improvements are the addition of 650 residential units with enough “affordable housing” units to meet the town’s quota under the state’s Chapter 40B regulations, a potential train station, and a new retail complex. The net result is a substantial revitalization of the area, along with a major increase in tax revenues for North Andover.

So, why does Ozzy Properties need help from our board of selectmen? Technically, they don’t.What they need is for town meet-ing to pass a requested zoning change to what is referred to as “Chapter 40R” (also known by government aficionados as a “Smart Growth Zoning Overlay District”). The MM is to convince selectmen that the zoning change is a good idea so that they will recommend approval to town meeting voters.

But wait a minute. The development is either a good idea or it isn’t. How does MM factor into it? I suppose, if the balance of good vs. evil were slightly negative, MM could make up the difference. But no one is arguing that the development plan is bad.

This begs the question: Who should decide what is a good or a bad development plan? Who owns the property? Is it Ozzy Properties or is it the town? Did the selectmen invest their hard-earned money in this project? Who is the biggest loser if the development is an economic failure? Who has the greatest incentive to create a successful development project? Is this private property or public property? What does it mean to own private property if you do not have the right to determine how it should be used?

Clearly, there is some justification for government concern and oversight. If the project has a direct impact on the local infrastructure (roads, sewer, etc.) or causes environmental impact to other property owners, then these issues need to be addressed.

There are no claimed environmental impacts with this development, so there are only two other possible reasons to demand MM. Either there are one-time infrastructure costs that the town will incur that have to be covered, OR there are recurring operating costs that must be paid for.

But MM is for neither of these. All known, one-time costs are being separately addressed (not part of the MM payment) and the town is negotiating for any required compensation. Recurring costs, such as added enrollment in our schools and/or additional public safety outlays, should be covered by future taxes to be paid annually by the property owners. In fact, current estimates of these tax revenues range between $2 million and $2.5 million each year, which is close to one million dollars per year more than the estimated increase in costs to the town. It should be noted that, while these estimates are from the developer, a positive cash flow is also projected in initial town estimates. In the unlikely event that a negative cash flow was to be predicted, it should be corrected via plan changes and not covered up by a one-time donation. 

So why are the selectmen demanding MM? Because they can.

Because if the selectmen refuse to endorse the project – even if they know it is good for the town – town meeting may refuse to pass the zoning change and Ozzy Properties will not be able to proceed with their development.

In a recent public meeting where MM for Ozzy Properties was being discussed, the town’s “negotiator” told officials how much he and other “negotiators” had wrested from other developers with similar developments in other towns. He then noted that, as our “negotiator” in the matter, he was a “junkyard dog.” I’ve never owned or even met a junkyard dog, but they sound pretty ferocious to me. Maybe he can be a particularly ferocious junkyard dog because he has the backing of the police powers of the state.

So, Ozzy Properties, here is the deal: pay-up or risk losing your right to develop your property as you would like. Some say, “The ends justify the means.” This is a silly thing to say. Of course, the ends should always justify the means, otherwise why do it? The question is: do they?

The “ends” in this case are all the wonderful things town government can do with the MM. The MM will probably be enough to put an extra police cruiser on the road, keep a second ambulance funded, and hire several additional teachers - all for several years. 

Or, because MM is “one-time” loot, it could be used to help fund some one-time projects: Maybe some MM could be used for an extra fire station, some for a new police station, and some towards a new elementary school. Wow, I’m sure many of our citizens would be excited to get these for Christmas!

But “the means”, in this case, are to attack the rights of the property owners by threatening their right to use their property as they see fit. It is, at most, a slight exaggeration to call it extortion. The dictionary tells us that extortion is “the act of, or an instance of, wresting or wringing (money, information, etc.) from a person by violence, intimidation, or abuse of authority.”

Extortion may seem like a harsh descriptor, but that is only because, when it comes to government, we have become accustomed to it. Have no doubt about it. What is going on in North Andover with regard to Ozzy Properties is common practice. North Andover’s officials are doing nothing different than officials of any town or city would do under similar circumstances.  Heck, in Methuen money was “extorted” from Brooks Pharmacy by the city and then part of it given by the mayor to a private charity. The uproar is not that the money was extorted, but that it went to the charity. The response was, “Hey, that’s our loot! Why did you give it to them!” Of course, they didn’t call it “loot” - even if that is what it was.

As a society, we are getting used to stealing. It is a way of life for government at all levels. Unfortunately, the attitude is contagious. When Katrina hit New Orleans and the police were nowhere to be found, looting became the norm. If you want it and you can get away with it, take it. Don’t worry about property rights. You want it – you take it. Because you can.

Some may claim that the shareholders of Ozzy Properties don’t really lose anything. They knew this would happen, it’s planned for in their budgets, and they will build the cost into their rents and the selling prices of any units sold. But Ozzy Properties can’t arbitrarily set its rents or selling prices. The market determines those values.

One might argue that, since this is common practice, it is already built into the market prices. The extent to which this is true is exactly the degree to which you and I pay for this practice every day in the form of higher housing prices and higher prices for consumer products. There is no free lunch. The resources for those extra goodies —fire stations, teachers, schools, etc.— must come from somewhere. Ultimately, we pay for them just the same as if we had to pay a new tax.

Normally, I would just observe this process, shake my head in disgust, and go on with life. But, because I am an elected official, I am closer to the action and feel more personally responsible. I would feel even more responsible if I were a selectman or a member of one of our boards that votes on development projects (e.g., the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals). As a school committee member, I have little or no power in the matter.

Unfortunately, there may still be a perception of complicity, so let me be clear on this issue. I happen to like the proposed development (pending review of the recurring cost impact), but my approval is irrelevant. As long as there are no significant negative impacts on the town’s infrastructure or environment, and as long as the recurring impact is at least covered by projected tax revenues, I think Ozzy Properties should be free to develop their property as they see fit. Barring some new revelation regarding the project’s impact, I will vote for the zoning change without any need for Ozzy Properties to “pay up” for my vote or support.

Our first encounter with a new neighbor should not be extortion. All I have to say to Ozzy Properties is, “Welcome to North Andover. Be a good neighbor. I hope we will wet our beaks through our own efforts.”

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