Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Troubles of Mahone Bay

Perhaps the most famous image of Maritime tranquillity is the three graceful churches of Mahone Bay side-by-side along the shore, their images reflected back from the still water.

Alas, Mahone Bay is anything but tranquil these days. Last May, the Town Council accepted a developer's proposal to buy 14 "surplus" acres from the Town for $90,000 to build a substantial housing complex. The decision created a storm of opposition.

The proposed development would include 96 seniors' apartments and 30 "assisted living" apartments, 36 other apartments, 36 semi-detached homes, and 32 single family dwellings. The homes are intended to be small and affordable -- about 1000 square feet in size, priced from $130,000 to $150,000. The 220 new units would house about 300 residents.

That's a lot of new housing for a town of about 900 -- and the village already has subdivisions with lots available. Worse, say opponents of the scheme, the land in contention is not "surplus." It includes most of the former Mahone Bay Academy grounds, excluding the old school itself, which is now a non-profit community arts, culture and recreational facility.

The remaining acreage has always been used as if it were a park. It includes a first-rate soccer field as well as a lovely stretch of woodland seamed with pathways where people cycle, do cross-country skiing, watch birds and walk their dogs. The new housing would reduce the amenities of the neighbourhood, create a need for new recreational facilities elsewhere, and substantially alter the character of the town.

And the character of the town -- its serenity, its historic architecture, its easy pace -- is Mahone Bay's greatest asset.

The plan's supporters retort that there's a difference between being serene and being comatose. Like other small coastal towns that once bustled with small factories, foundries, sail lofts and boatyards, Mahone Bay has been gutted economically by the sweeping changes of the last half-century. The tax base is shrinking, the population is aging. The village needs stimulation.

And say the project's supporters the new development will provide much-needed accommodation for all those seniors as well as affordable new housing for the young families who are the key to the town's future. At one meeting, a veteran firefighter explained his support for the plan in terms of the difficulty in finding young volunteers to join the fire department. New homes mean new families and new volunteers.

Well, maybe. But the problems of Mahone Bay are the problems of rural Nova Scotia generally, and indeed of rural Canada. As we lose the old labour-intensive resource economy of farming, forestry, fishing and mining, villages wither. Simply providing affordable housing won't reverse that trend. Mahone Bay, luckier than most, is close enough to Halifax to serve as a bedroom community. But that's not what the village wants.

The deeper issue in Mahone Bay is the process. Citizens are enraged that the council made such a crucial decision without consultation. Indeed, the council was meeting in-camera when it
accepted developer Bob Youden's proposal. It also agreed to refund him the purchase price of the land as an investment, and to provide him with certain tax concessions.

It later ratified these decisions in a public meeting. Then, when the decisions proved controversial, the council refused to reconsider them or to delay their implementation.

On October 9, town resident Penny Carver presented the council with a petition containing more than 250 names. (As of this week, the petition had 359 names.) Its final paragraph said, "We call on you not to commit to this development before all the people of the Town have had a chance to fully assess and debate its implications, both good and bad, and to consider alternatives."

"It's about fair process," Penny Carver told the council. "It's not just about a number count of those for or against development; it's about ensuring there is dialogue about how and where development takes place."

Yes and in fact, the matter doesn't seem that difficult. The town needs seniors' housing, and a very attractive seniors' complex could be built on the edge of the school property, overlooking the soccer field and leaving most of the woodland untouched. The homes vacated by the seniors would then be available for younger families.

But the council responded to the petition by reaffirming its earlier declaration that the lands were surplus and when Mayor Joe Feeney proposed to defuse future controversies by instituting a "mayor's round-table" as a mechanism for future citizen involvement, the motion died for want of a seconder.

Such huffy defiance seems politically loony, and makes one wonder what else may be motivating the councillors. Meanwhile, by creating deep divisions within the community, the controversy may wind up driving people away from one of Nova Scotia's most charming and beautiful communities. That's precisely the opposite of what "development" is supposed to do.

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