In news headlines, the environment isn’t the only issue being framed as a “crisis.” Housing—particularly affordable housing—is a hot topic and an urgent need not only in big cities like Boston, but throughout Massachusetts as well. In fact, Gov. Maura Healey says housing affordability is one of the biggest problems in the Commonwealth, with limited housing stock that’s too expensive for many people.
A recurring criticism of land conservation is that it often benefits wealthier communities and may drive up the price of remaining land needed to meet housing needs. Recently, questions of equity and inclusion have prompted the land trust community to give more attention to this issue.
This year, the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition’s annual conference focused on the intersection of housing and conservation, and the national Land Trust Alliance is also providing resources on the topic. A few innovative land trusts around the country are beginning to collaborate with affordable housing organizations to change the “either or” narrative. These two pressing public needs—land conservation and affordable housing—need not be in conflict. See the Land Trust Alliance’s new publication, Breaking Ground: An Affordable Housing Resource Guide for Land Trusts.
A Green Vision for Easthampton
With this in mind, Kestrel has embarked on an exciting new collaborative initiative called Growing Green: Easthampton. This pilot project is a partnership with the City of Easthampton, Mass Audubon, and The Community Builders—a national non-profit organization that develops, owns and operates affordable and mixed-income housing—to provide a viable housing site with socially equitable access to open space, while protecting critical natural resources at the same time.
Easthampton was chosen for this project since issues of housing, land availability, and prices have become particularly challenging. Thanks to two anonymous donors who provided the seed funding for this initiative, our team located 53 acres that is now under contract to be purchased. The majority of the land—42 acres of forest, field, and farmland—will be permanently conserved, while the remaining 11 acres along the road would support up to 90 affordable rental units in three buildings.
Because this is one of the largest remaining undeveloped parcels with significant habitat along the Manhan River, it’s been on conservation groups’ radar. Conserving it will expand the protected land adjacent to Pomeroy Meadows Conservation Area, owned by Pascommuck Conservation Trust, and the Whittemore Conservation Area in Southampton. It will also provide a natural buffer around the Manhan, protecting water quality as well as wildlife connections between forest blocks.
Being near the city center, the land is also flagged in Easthampton’s recent Housing Production Plan as prime for development. Intense development pressure and high property values have made traditional conservation options unworkable for this parcel, putting all of the land at high risk of becoming a sprawling, unaffordable subdivision development. The Growing Green: Easthampton project is likely the only way to protect the majority of this valuable land.
In a more equitable vision of Easthampton’s future, a new neighborhood for that includes families with less wealth will be created alongside a new conservation area, guaranteeing residents access to “natural amenities” usually found in high-priced communities: spectacular views of Mount Tom and Pomeroy Mountain, walking trails through meadows and forest, and fertile ground for growing local food.