A draft of Newtown’s latest version of its Plan of Conservation and Development is currently making the rounds of town agencies for critiques and comments before the Planning and Zoning Commission formally approves the planning document later this year. By state law, the town has to update this document at least once a decade. The principles and goals outlined in these town plans are usually exceedingly impressionistic — pretty pictures, really, of a town with open spaces and historic charm, diverse in its population and opportunities, and free of traffic congestion. It is a nice vision. Would that we could all go live in the town plan. But as a visionary of another sort, John Lennon, pointed out, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
The executive summary of the draft plan acknowledges this inescapable truth by referencing the 12/14 shootings at the Sandy Hook School, noting that the crucible of “intense grief and massive public and media attention” is transforming the town in ways that no amount of planning could anticipate. In clearly its most understated prediction, the draft plan declares, “This tragedy will leave its impact on the future of Newtown.” As the plan itself demonstrates, 12/14 will now always be the ultimate point of reference for this town.
The Plan of Conservation and Development, however, should not be faulted for its rosy scenarios. It is, in essence, a statement of intention. In any effort to impose our hopes and wishes upon our reality, good intentions are always the best place to start. The Planning and Zoning Commission uses these intentions to balance the competing interests of conservation and development and to guide its land use decisions, which literally shape the landscape of our prospects over time.
Ironically, the “life” that happens while we are making plans often provides the most powerful and effective means for imposing our good intentions on a world brimming with hazard and happenstance. Every town plan we can remember has taken pains to extol and protect Newtown’s “character,” which is shorthand for the town’s historic and rural appearance. But the real character inherent in those scenic assets was put there by real people who built the landmarks and farmed the land, all coping with a set of difficult realities that are hard for us to imagine in this day and age. Their intention, though, was most likely the same as ours: to provide and prosper. Their effect over the centuries, we now know, is a thing of beauty and inspiration.
We know something of difficult realities. Let us hope that our lives and plans influence the future with the same effect — and with the same character.