William Drenttel | Essays

Small Town Meetings

Photo: Paul Shambroom, Buckland, Massachusetts (population 1,943) Board of Selectmen, July 27, 1999.

We live in Falls Village, Connecticut, the third smallest town in Connecticut with a population of 1,288.

Some months ago, I attended a local zoning commission meeting to argue for a more modern approach to "home office" regulations. The previous regulations were vague and basically made our design business illegal, since we have more than family members working in our studio.

The new zoning regulations were going to allow craft industries to have up to six employees, have unregulated signage, endless parking, and allow the waste and refuse of "pottery" businesses to drain into nearby streams. I argued that this was an anachronism, and that modern computer-based home businesses contributed more to the community without wear-and-tear on the environment. We support eight people in Falls Village and neighboring towns — and only add to the traffic by having a couple of FedEx deliveries a week. We have no signs that say Winterhouse Studio. I won the argument (successfully elevating design above crafts for the first time in my life). In the new zoning regulations, we can have numerous office employees without having to apply for a special variance.

But the meeting itself was memorable. Eight zoning commissioners sat around a long fold-out table in an open space at town hall. Half of them had their backs to the audience. There were about fifteen other villagers in attendance. I had submitted a written document to the secretary of the zoning commission in advance of the meeting; my presentation was effectively reading it into the record. Parliamentary procedure was closely followed, and my remarks were timed.

Zoning regulations are how a town designs its future. They determine what kind of development is encouraged, and what kind is discouraged. Falls Village was established in 1738, and the "Village Business Zone" seeks to preserve the many historic buildings (of widely varying architectural styles). Today, there is virtually no viable retail business, meaning residents have to drive to neighboring towns for dry cleaning, hardware and shopping. The new zoning regulations create a "Steep Slope Overlay" that would place special restrictions on our mountainside, discouraging McMansions that would destroy pristine mountain vistas or, more importantly perhaps, be difficult for fire and ambulance squads to reach.

In Meetings, Paul Shambroom, a photographer from Minnesota, visited 150 local government meetings in 32 states. The photographs are remarkable in presenting the physical details by which towns gather to determine how they live. There are American flags in fifteen out of twenty-two photographs on his site. There are town plans or drawings in seven of them. In only four are men wearing ties. In the book, actual meeting notes are printed on bible paper. These, too, are remarkable in the mundane documentation of communities governing themselves: speed bumps for the new mini-mall, new sewer lines and fire hydrants, or a nature trail proposed by a local corporation "next to the creek." My favorite passage is, "Bob Worm has bought Jodi Finkes house. They are going to fill in and make a car port. We ask that they keep it looking nice."

Last week, I went to another meeting in a neighboring town to explore possibilities for low-income housing in the area. Housing for working families is desperately needed as the real estate market has made it almost impossible for young people to live where they grow up. (We have incredible problems finding housing for our employees as well.) But the difference between bad low-income housing and well-designed, potentially sustainable new construction is a wonderful challenge. The Mayor (we call them "First Selectmen" here in rural Connecticut) ranted about how he's tried to get people interested in building a state-of-the-art "transfer" station (in local parlance, this means a dump or recycling center). Another design challenge: I've been calling architect friends in New York City saying I have a Mayor who wants a state-of-the-art . . . dump.

Meanwhile, Falls Village does not have a website. When I asked for a PDF of the new zoning regulations to distribute to my neighbors, I drew a blank stare at town hall. It took me days to get an online copy from the planning firm, and only then was I able to share it on an infrequently-used blog with my neighbors in Wangum Valley, nestled a few miles north of the village. We're trying to get a group to attend the next zoning meeting. As usual, I will be the only designer in the room. And you can bet I won't be wearing a tie.

Posted in: Photography, Social Good

Comments [5]

William wrote: "modern computer-based home businesses contributed more to the community without wear-and-tear on the environment."

Actually, not the case at all. All those old and often toxic components can end up in other communities (China) or dumps and are an great environmental hazard and waste. Also add cell phones, fax machines, printers and other disposable technologies used by designers.

Don't forget the paper products we produce and the incredible waste and environmental destruction caused by the logging, manufacturing, and printing industries. Most of what we produce for print also ends up in the trash the next day or next minute.

Graphic design is one of the most dirty and wasteful service industries on the planet either through direct or indirect participation in the industrial processes involved in producing the products we design.

Joseph Coates

Joseph, I agree in respect to the direct and indirect waste produced by the graphic design field, however noting cell-phones, fax machines and printers in there doesn't seem entirely relevant.

However to William's point, having a background in the ceramic arts, the direct health implications of allowing pottery businesses to leach refuse materials into the local waterways could be catastrophic. And that potential does in fact create a double standard in this instance.

William, coming from a small New England town myself, its good to read a story about being involved in local politics—and Shambroom's Meetings sounds terrific...
Christian Palino

Joe—However short sighted it may seem, it is probably appropriate that local zoning primarily address the local environment. Bill's comment was correct from the local standpoint.

The problem of computer recycling should be addressed on a national level. Right now in the US it's mainly a state issue. I worked on materials for the campaign that got a recycling law in California and one of the sticking points in the highly competitive business was what to do about Dell. They are the low price leader but have no local physical presence so tend to avoid efforts of state regulation and taxation.

I'm not dismissing the larger subject being brought up in the specific context: The cliché directive to "Think global; act local" is a worthy one. It is not just in towns smaller than your average high school where local democracy is vital. I've done a lot of pro bono work for a community council—a neighborhood group with no formal power but great influence in the medium-small California city I'm about to leave. Not only does my belief in democracy make me certain that a local voice in planning issues is vital; added value comes because the process brings more people into the real life Sim City tradeoffs that local and regional planning are all about. Good planning—make that all good design—only survives if there is strong stakeholder buy-in. The lessons learned when seeking speed bumps for your street cause awareness of local, regional, and world transportation problems. In this sense the local democracy Bill talks about can flip the saying so that acting locally helps people to think globally.
Gunnar Swanson

Great post. Looking over Shambroom's photos I couldnt help but notice how when the population #s decreased, the individuals in the community made up for it in their own circumference.

I'd like to see scripts on some of the post meeting "meatings".
felix sockwell

As I sit here picking paper out of our studio trash can, I wonder if my obsession with garbage politics has anything to do with my origins in a rural Connecticut town. As a child, a friend's father was the town garbage man, and his family of nine children was famous for their extensive toy collection... much of it acquired for free from the haul.

One of my favorite destinations when visiting my parents (they've since moved one town over, and now haul their own trash) is the local transfer station. Seeing families smiling and laughing together while sorting their trash into ever more specific categories seems like a conservationist's dream as depicted by a Soviet-era social-realist painter. I'm reminded of that article in the Times a few months ago about the Japanese town with 44 trash categories, and the civic glee with which they police each other.

Following the culture-wide trend of environmentalism going out of style, I've noticed a deep indifference on the part of graphic designers toward the industrial realities of our profession. I recently read that over 40% of New York City's trash is (easily recyclable) paper. And what percentage of that is beautifully designed (but unnecessary) packaging to begin with? This seems at least partly our fault, and easily addressed if we chose to. Perhaps some kind of environmental revivalism is in order?
Andrew Sloat

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