Our inclination to peel back the layers of bureaucracy to save a little money and a lot of complexity makes us loathe to suggest the need for another town agency. But as we witness the growing controversy surrounding plans to build 136 houses in a “cluster” development on 136 acres on Castle Hill, we think this proposal desperately needs to go before a Board of Irony.
Cluster housing developments — or as they are known in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, open space conservation subdivisions — are supposed to “preserve the unique natural features of the parcel” and preserve open space, according to the town plan. The most famous natural feature of the two parcels that make up the Castle Hill site of this proposed housing development is the spectacular overlook of the center of town with its iconic flagpole and churches. It is a view the land shares with the adjacent Newtown Forest Association’s (NFA) Nettleton Preserve. The NFA has dubbed the area “the crown of Castle Hill.” Yet the land this cluster development seeks to preserve is low-lying acreage nearer to Taunton Lake, with house construction taking place in the upland area. While the hopeful developer promises “a spectacular development” with “beautiful views,” local advocates of open space preservation contend that much of the town will have a not-so-beautiful view of a housing development on a hill.
The prospect of having one of Newtown’s most revered natural areas fall victim to a zoning concept intended to preserve scenic natural resources really deserves a thorough review, if not before a Board of Irony, then before the Borough Zoning Commission, which, along with the Water and Sewer Authority and Inland Wetlands Commission, must approve the plan before it becomes a reality. Newtown’s Plan of Conservation and Development notes that “the views of open land and forested landscapes within Newtown may lead to a perception that large areas of the town are ‘open space.’” Local land use officials also need to consider a converse insight: prominent views of housing development may lead to a perception that large areas of the town are overbuilt. One development’s “beautiful view” of a town can misrepresent that town for thousands more taking in the scenery from below.
Ridge tops are sensitive environmental areas precisely because they broadcast a sense of a place far and wide. They are exactly the kind of areas that need to be protected by open space preservation tactics like cluster housing. This particular housing plan has a long way to go before it becomes a reality. Let us hope its final disposition reflects the original intent of the regulations. It would be a shame to have “the crown of Castle Hill” glitter quite so conspicuously with ironic excess.