Clear-headed advice from a Planner

We think everyone should read it this important letter of concern:
Wanda Baxter, Planner, and Environmental Designer
Northwest, Lunenburg County
October 10, 2007

To the attention of Mayor C. Joe Feeney, and the Town Council of Mahone Bay:

I am writing to voice concern about the proposed sale of the publicly owned old school lands for the purpose of building private residences and a complex for seniors.

I write from an objective perspective. I am not a user of the site; I have no connection to the soccer association and I don’t have children; and I live in Northwest (the value of my home will not depreciate due to the loss of adjacent parkland, and I will not be directly impacted by the development). Nonetheless, I am amazed and saddened that you propose to give up this valued piece of public green space to a housing developer.

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Why do I care?
I was raised in rural New Brunswick, upriver of Saint John, and I went to university to study rural planning because I had watched my home region change radically from my youth to my late teens. It transformed from the farming, fishing and shipbuilding community that my father and his father knew, into basically a bedroom community for Saint John.

Like Mahone Bay, much of the land along the waterfront is “cottage country”; owned by seasonal residents. The price of land there continues to climb. Much of its forests are leased and harvested by Irving. But the worst aspect is the suburb-type developments that house people that live mostly in their vehicles – traveling to work, shopping, entertainment, and places to recreate. The result is a place of diminished community and natural splendor – the very thing it was once known for.

I went to the University of Calgary to study planning and environmental design in order to learn how to prevent and respond to such haphazard, shortsighted development.

I have worked in positions with: rural community groups in Alberta, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve (N.S.), the Municipality of the County of East Hants (as Open Space planner), and others, and, regardless of the situation, when I have seen valued public land sold amid substantial opposition; the wound doesn’t heal. I am writing because I care about community, and land, and the preservation of both. And this is where I live, and consider to be my home.
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Selling ‘on spec’
The proposed plan is especially controversial because there is no guarantee, at all, that the potential for jobs or increased revenue or the betterment of the community (or region) will improve due to the sale of the land. There is also no guarantee that the flattening of the hill and loss of the forest and its root system, the infilling of wetland areas and spring streams, and disruption of slate, arsenic and sulphuric compounds won’t effect environmental problems.

The ‘plan’ for the subdivision is loose, at best. There is no guarantee that the developer will sell any percent of the lots he portends he will sell, and there is no guarantee that the number of homes he predicts he will build will, in fact, be built.

There is no guarantee that he won’t carry through with the development and, instead, eventually sell the land to the highest bidder. In other words, the town intends to sell a piece of public land – even though a good percentage of townspeople are kicking and screaming about it – on ‘spec’ (i.e. speculating that what ‘they’ – the town government – wants to happen, will happen).

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What the development could mean
At best, the development could mean an increased tax base for the town, but at worst; it could mean long-term community animosity and increased economic hardship for the town, stemming from:

•     Increased traffic on roads intended for minimal local traffic that will cause traffic problems, the need for traffic studies to figure out how to deal the problems, a need for road improvements (especially as they are already in need of repair), more crosswalks, sidewalks, road widening, possible need for street lights at busiest intersections, and possible need to encroach on and/or appropriate parts of private properties as road widening proves unavoidable.

•     The unforeseen possibility that people who have cared much about their community will move out of town – because: Council has ignored their opposition to and stress over the sale of the land, and the conflict over its sale may cause irreparable conflicts,

•     The diminishing of the general quality of life, that will result from: lost organized recreation opportunities (i.e. soccer, which is the fastest growing sport in Canada); the loss of walking trails in a peaceful, ATV-free forested area; increased traffic issues and fewer walkable streets, and ongoing community conflict that won’t soon go away.

•     An increase of taxes due to requirements for road improvements, traffic calming infrastructure, pedestrian protections, and unforeseen problems with water and sewage which put pressure on the town budget,

•     Green space and recreation opportunities that were provided, are gone, and need to be replaced.

•     Erosion problems and consequent increased flooding (in homes below the development, which is already a problem) that may result, and cost the town reparations again,

•     The fact that tourism numbers may go down, as a result of the influences above, and especially as the character of the town will be drastically changed. It may seem that the development will be hidden back up on the hill, but character is holistic: the town is what it is because it has a sense of history and community in harmony with the natural environment. This development doesn’t blend at all with what is there, and it will change the whole (perhaps more than imagined), which is what people have been drawn to. They/we are drawn to and inspired by places that haven’t been spoiled – that aren’t a mishmash of subdivisions and random, economically driven decisions.
Mahone Bay stands apart as a place that has maintained its dignity, with respect of the past and the natural beauty that surrounds. The preliminary plan for this development does the opposite.

There is a single aspect of this sale that, on its own, is reason enough to wait, and not go forward. That being: it is irreversible. The town will very likely never be able to buy back such an important asset: a forested, central land parcel that offers natural drumlin features, wildlife habitat, and walking links to various parts of town (to future development above the trans-Canada Trail – and to the trail itself from the lower streets – and to the soccer field, Mahone Bay Centre, and preexisting recreation facilities at the base of the hill).

In an environment where real estate prices are going skyward, public land becomes near sacred. Invaluable (and unsellable).

The proposed development will diminish the character of the town – not because it has a modern suburb at its core (though this will have a negative affect, in disrupting the historical and classic sense of place it is so celebrated for), but more for what it no longer has and can no longer offer: a substantial tract of green space that is easily accessed and partially undisturbed.

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Houses don’t make Community
At the meeting regarding the development in June, a long-standing member of the volunteer fire department and other organizations stood up and argued that the development is needed because only the imported rich and cottagers live in town anymore.

Somehow, his argument followed that the development will bring people who will be volunteering types, and the fire department will no longer be in crisis. The fact is, volunteering in Nova Scotia is way down for many organizations, in most towns. Two people working full time in a family means everyone is tired when they get home, and if they have leisure time or energy left, it’s likely going to their children, or to neglected chores or hobbies (or television). There also seems a general decline in our culture of the idea of civic responsibility. More people living in town doesn’t necessarily mean more volunteers or civic-minded ‘folks’.

It has also been argued that the new development will bring people who will live and work here. Again, there is no guarantee of this at all. In fact, there is nothing to say that the people who buy the properties won’t be people who would love to have a ‘summer place’ on the South Shore but can’t afford a place on the coast or in town. Or, they work elsewhere, but wouldn’t mind having a home base in Mahone Bay. So: the development creates a demographic of more people who don’t live here much of the time – and rarely shop here – who get better prices on their new homes in this burgeoning ‘commuter town’, and choice public real estate is given them for the taking.

Houses don’t make community. And housing developments don’t mean people do anything in the town except own a house (or cottage, or weekend getaway), or live in a senior’s residence.

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To be held in trust
Without being able to guarantee that this proposed development will attract enough people who will live there as full-time residents, and work in town, it is unthinkable to sell this land for 90 thousand dollars, or anything near that sum. It is unthinkable, regardless.

This land is a public resource. It is important to the public, and to the character of the town, and to future generations who will be thankful the town held it in trust when there are few places left to go. Look at the NO TRESPASSING signs dotting the coastline and people’s lawns and docks for an indication of things to come.

The town is entrusted with preserving this land, and the ecological services that the land provides, in part because:
•     The forested area limits erosion down the hill and contributes positively to air quality;
•     it serves as a sound buffer, a windbreak, and visual green-scape above the town;
•     The wetland area at the back and lower stream-area of the property serves to filter run-off and impurities thereby improving water quality;
•     It is an important place for organized and casual recreation (the health aspects of having natural places to get out in are well-documented, and their provision are an increasing priority of our provincial and federal governments).
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The red flag
When there is the kind of substantial outcry to a plan as is currently happening, it is a red flag. The flag means slow down, slow way down, make sure you’re on the right track … get a second opinion … do research and get advice … reassess the reasons for going forward (while ensuring that emotions and/or politics aren’t the underpinnings of refuting compromise, and refusing to consider alternatives).

To deem this land ‘surplus’ and raze it for high-density housing is comparable to the decision that was made years ago to build a mall and parking lot on the waterfront in Bridgewater. It is an example of taking best assets for granted, and sanctioning their destruction. People will shake their heads in amazement when they see it. People are shaking their heads now in amazement at the idea of it.

In retrospect, people will wonder how the powers that were could have approved such a blight.

The place of beauty you invite people to share deserves more that this out-dated approach. As do you. And your children. And theirs. And all of us.

There is time to change tack and alter course. I truly hope you do, before the chance is gone.

Respectfully submitted,
Wanda Baxter
Home and farm owner, Northwest