Think Before You Develop

Here in Fort Bragg, there has been much kerfuffle of late over the new aquatic centre. For those not familiar with the ins and outs of small town doings, the aquatic centre was in the planning phases for an extremely long time (I want to say over a decade, because I remember people coming into my classes in elementary school to talk about it). After a great deal of fundraising work, the aquatic centre finally went up, to much fanfare, and everyone was very excited to replace our old rec centre, which was not looking so hot after many years of service.

Things seemed to go ok for a while, and then in December, disaster struck. Rumours were flying that the centre might have to shut down despite the fact that it had just opened. Why? Because there was no money available keep it open. They couldn’t afford to pay staff and maintain the facility and everything else, and there was talk of closing it, although this of course came with its own costs, because buildings require work when they lie fallow unless you plan to abandon them and let them rot. Fortunately, people got proactive and decided it was worth fighting to keep it open.

This situation illustrated a couple of classic problems I see with development and community projects in Fort Bragg, and I know they happen elsewhere as well. When people first fundraised for the centre, the monies they raised were for construction. The grants received were specifically for construction. They could only be used for construction. Use it or lose it grants of this nature are very, very common. And it turned out to be a good thing that people raised a lot of money for construction because it went over budget, but in the end, the focus was on building the centre.

Not on paying to maintain it. People did not raise funds for keeping the centre open, and there appears to have been limited planning in terms of thinking about how to keep it running after the doors opened. Were they hoping annual fees and so forth would pay for it? Were they hoping for more money from the government? (Ha.) Were they just not thinking at all? I find it very hard to believe that a large organization of people just completely didn’t think about how to keep the aquatic centre running, I really do, but it’s the only conclusion I can reach, because it went from glorious community project to abject failure in just 15 months.

I see this happening repeatedly with approaches to development in Fort Bragg and I have written about this issue before. People get these high flown ideas but do not think in the slightest about follow through. Fort Bragg, like many towns across the United States, has a crumbling infrastructure. Our water, sewer, and garbage services can barely support the current inhabitants. Now that I’m not living around the corner from a grow house, my power does not go out all the time, which is some consolation, but I know it continues to be a problem in town as PGE services get overloaded not just with grow houses, but with the electricity draw of living and doing business.

I happen to be fiercely antidevelopment, as we all know, but I am a huge proponent of infrastructure support. And I see a lot of people who oppose development also opposing reforms to infrastructure, like they are afraid that with better electrical meters will come more development. No, with better municipal services, Fort Bragg will be able to sustain its current population. If the people who want to develop are lucky, when we do work on our infrastructure, wiggle room will be built in to make it possible to expand.

And this is a when, at this point, not an if. Fort Bragg must address its infrastructure, and very, very soon. This is not optional. This is critically necessary.

When proposals were flying about developing the White Property north of town, aside from the annexation issue, there was also a lot of talk about water. Namely that we do not have enough of it, and that developing a huge swath of land would probably not be a good idea if we couldn’t get water to the people on that land. A lot of people pooh-poohed this, ignoring the fact that the city was already having water problems. The idea of adding thousands of new residents without paying attention to the water issue was appalling.

Here on Pudding Creek, residents banded together in the past to force a zoning change because they were concerned about water availability with dense development. They knew that on one acre parcels, with lots of wells being sunk, the water table would drop. We might have been forced to join the city and get water from them, if there was any water available. It sure would have been awkward to get annexed to access water only to find that there was none for us. The Pudding Creek residents thought ahead, about the long term consequences of their land use, and took a proactive step.

Why can’t the city do this? Why is Fort Bragg continuing to propose ridiculous development schemes, to destroy more open space where there are still vacant lots and empty units in town, when the city does not have the infrastructure to support them? Development of the mill site, in the current climate, seems unlikely, but it will happen eventually, and when it does, will anyone think ahead of time about what is going to happen when all the people in those housing units open their taps to do the dishes after dinner? Or do people think that this is someone else’s problem, so they don’t need to worry about addressing it?

The aquatic centre was the cautionary tale, but did anyone pay attention?