‘Intended consequences’ have an impact on the town
There are intended consequences for local government’s actions. We can argue about why it’s happening, but not about whether it is happening. It’s happening.
Some local people are not happy about it. They are making their voices heard. Last week, one of our readers sent an envelope addressed to “Hammonton Gazette/Gabe and Gina” with a remarkable news article from 1978 clipped neatly from the Press of Atlantic City. The person didn’t mail us a copy of the article; she sent us the actual clipping.
That’s how intensely people feel about what’s happening in Hammonton right now. Mayor Stephen DiDonato made sure to announce three public portions of the meeting where the redevelopment agreement passed on August 8. I wouldn’t break my arm patting myself on the back for doing that in front of a largely empty council chamber at a special “off night” council meeting.
It’s not exactly what I’d call political courage.
Here is what the note that came with the article from 44 years ago said:
“With all the talk in town about more apartment housing, I thought you might like this article from 1978. I know times and needs change, but let’s not get carried away!” she wrote. We cannot thank her enough for reading and reacting to our reporting the way she did.
I unfolded the article in the envelope, which was dated April 10, 1978. The one side had a circular “Family Circus” cartoon and television listings for shows like “Dick Cavett,” “Hollywood Squares” and “Ryan’s Hope.” On the other side, there was an article with two separate sections and headlines and a large photo.
The first headline was “Hammonton Wins An Expert’s Praise.” The headline on the second section read “Hammonton Ego Deserves a Boost.” The article was written by Anders Gyllenhaal, whom research showed would go on to become the Executive Editor of The Miami Herald, Editorial Vice President of the McClatchy Company’s 30 newsrooms and past president of the Pulitzer Prize Committee before becoming a professor at George Washington University. The photo was of Dr. Claude M. Epstein, a Stockton environmental studies professor who worked for the university (then college) for more than 30 years. Epstein conducted a nine-month study of Hammonton, concluding, the caption said, “that Hammonton is a gem of a town.”
The quotes from the 1978 article are nothing short of amazing when related to the 2022 situation in Hammonton regarding new affordable and apartment housing:
• “… the perfectly-balanced economy, rich ethnic influence, deep community spirit and pleasant environment have been around so long that many of the 12,000 residents take it for granted. That, however, may not be so good. Dr. Claude M. Epstein, a Stockton environmental studies professor, spent the past nine months carefully logging the environmental layout of the 40-square-mile community, measuring its cultural life and putting together a 60-page book on what he found. His conclusion is that Hammonton is unique to South Jersey; it is a treasure of a community. But its residents may lose all this if they’re not careful,” Gyllenhaal wrote in 1978.
• Epstein said the following in the decades-old article: “Hammonton is a self-contained town. It has a business center, industry, agriculture and a wilderness area. There seems to be a kind of town spirit and within the town’s boundaries there are strong cultural bonds … But I think to some extent, they’re taking it for granted. And any kind of change in housing is suddenly going to change the nature of this balance.”
• Gyllenhaal wrote: “If the strong pressures to become highly residential win out in such a town, as has happened in numerous New Jersey towns, the spirit, the unity and self-respect disappear.”
• Epstein is quoted in the article as saying Hammonton’s residents should mention the town’s good points and attempt to control their own destiny through political and utility autonomy: “One thing they can do is brag like crazy that this is what they’ve got. The thing that has helped make New Hope, Pa. what it is—is good press. Now, nobody would dare disturb it …As long as a town can hold on to its political autonomy, that could be a way of staying clear of some of these developmental problems … If, for instance, they can keep control of their own [sewer] treatment plant, they can control how to expand.”
Here is the problem with that last quote by Epstein, who was obviously a visionary and proven correct for nearly five decades. He may not have considered the fact that local officials would eventually want to court more housing, and because of the largely-unchecked autonomy and power the local elected and appointed officials have, coupled with controlling the local utilities and pressure from the state in the form of the Department of Community Affairs’ Council on Affordable Housing requirements, the very residential growth Epstein felt Hammonton should be avoiding when he did his study in 1978 is now being fostered and courted.
And those negative impacts on the town Epstein wrote about all those years ago? What happens to us in this new era of affordable housing and apartment complexes pushed forward by local government?
In my view, those negative impacts aren’t unintended consequences.
I believe they are fully intended.
Gabriel J. Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.