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Bay State's `Friends' Want Reasoned Growth

GRIDLOCK nearly made former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas miss an important engagement recently. When he finally arrived, friends noted the irony, because it was a meeting aimed at bringing runaway growth (and attendant traffic jams) under control in the Bay State. When he got stuck, Mr. Tsongas was on his way to the announcement of the formation of 1,000 Friends of Massachusetts, a nonprofit citizens' group that hopes to help balance conservation and development in the state.

The organization wants to provide a reasoned citizens' voice to the often acrimonious debate on how to handle growth. It includes former Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship as chairman; Tsongas and Mt. Holyoke College president Elizabeth Kennan, who will serve as vice chairmen; and former Wang Laboratories Inc. chief Fred Wang.

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``The prime goal of 1,000 Friends is to achieve a rational statewide planning process,'' Mr. Winship says. ``But we emphasize: This does not mean stopping growth, it means encouraging productive growth....''

Massachusetts is seeing unmistakable signs of damage from unproductive growth, Winship says. They include:

A housing shortage. Between now and 1995, the state will need 65,000 more units. Large companies are refusing to relocate in Massachusetts because of the serious shortage of affordable housing.

Cape Cod crowding. Route 28, that runs along the Cape, is one of the largest continuous shopping strips in the United States. The crowded Cape has a growing groundwater crisis. During the past 19 years, the number of new housing units on Cape Cod has doubled.

Infrastructure overuse. Seventy-four percent of the thousands of miles of roads in Massachusetts are classified by state and federal officials as ``deficient.'' Forty-seven percent of the state's bridges are ``substandard,'' with 19 percent listed as ``functionally obsolete.''

Disappearing open space. Six hundred acres a week are lost to developers.

Wetlands development. There are 12,000 requests annually to build on wetlands, compared with 3,000 four years ago.

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Farming exodus: Only 600 dairy farms remain in the state, down from 3,000 a decade ago.

Despite deep concern over these issues, the group was not formed to make arbitrary demands on developers or to tell the state what to do. ``We're nonconfrontational consensus builders,'' says Katharine Preston, executive director of the group.

``We're looking for a statewide planning process that will mandate that communities have to plan ahead, and give them the resources to do it,'' Ms. Preston says. The group's plan is to provide technical assistance to local governments and state agencies to improve the quality of planning.

Massachusetts is following in the footsteps of Oregon, which launched the 1,000 Friends of Oregon in 1975, the first such group. Florida launched a similar group in 1986, in part as a reaction to a water-supply crisis created by overdevelopment. The Oregon group has also formed the National Growth Management Leadership Project to assist the 14 states that have, or are forming, ``friends'' groups.

The organizations have roots in the environmental movement of the 1960s. Along with concerns about air and water pollution, some people questioned the relinquishment of state control of land to cities and towns that occurred in the early part of the century. This local control of land use frequently resulted in chaotic landscapes of shopping malls, housing developments, and clogged freeways.

Governors and legislators began to act on those concerns in the early '70s, when the first laws were passed returning land-use decisions to state control. Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Vermont, and Rhode Island now have such legislation.

``Some people are very strongly opposed to anybody regulating use of private property,'' says Henry Richmond, executive director of the 1,000 Friends of Oregon. ``Local government gets very jealous over any loss of authority.''

``What local citizens' groups ... do is make sure the debate about growth is two-sided so it's not dominated by local officials or real estate interests, and so that the interests of the community have been taken into account,'' Mr. Richmond says.

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