There’s no free lunch on a moving train

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
~ Howard Zinn 

Monday night, four of the Ferguson supervisors voted on a few issues I know some of you are very interested in. They include whether we conduct a survey on a referendum for environmental resource preservation, allow backyard chickens, and whether to go forward with a proposed stormwater ordinance. Other important issues (N. Atherton Street project and sundry consulting and engineering projects) were before the board. But since these three play a part in our community life on issues that are very important to me, I thought I’d share.

Should we place a referendum on the ballot to create a fund for environmental resource preservation? What should we preserve or conserve? Ecosystems are, to my mind, things with value in themselves as parts of the creation. At the same time, I recognize that many  people value them for their functions. These include gas and water regulation, soil formation, sedimentation control, pollination, biological control, recreation, cultural resources, and more (See Table 1 below from Costanza et al “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital“) Researchers estimated the value of the world’s ecosystems at between $16 and $54 trillion.

ecosysytem services figure from costanza

How can we value our portion of these assets locally? What and where are they? A widened buffer along Slab Cabin Run? A constructed wetland in a park? A purchased easement of open space managed as old field or meadow? How could or should we pay for it? A tax? A fee? We will have to have an ongoing conversation about these things in the coming months with citizens of Ferguson Township. I know that if we want to keep these things around, or even to bolster them, that we have to pay for it. As both Barry Commoner and Milton Friedman have said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” How do we pay for lunch?

We also directed staff to begin crafting an ordinance for backyard chickens. An earlier board outlawed it a few years ago. If memory serves, people debated sights, sounds, and smells, much like people in College Township did in 2014 when their council voted down a similar ordinance. People in State College borough, Patton township, and cities from Boston to Philly to Miami have chickens with no incidents. I suspect we will will be joining them soon.

Finally, we voted on amendments to a stormwater ordinance before we advertise the final draft for public hearing. Two issues were of top concern: blasting in water sensitive area districts (SADs) and infiltration facility setbacks from some geological features in SADs. In both cases, I voted based on a firm belief in the precautionary principle for environmental integrity and public health. The precautionary principle says, “When the health of humans and the environment is at stake, it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action.” Better safe than sorry.

First, I’d prefer to keep blasting out of what’s known as Zone 2 of our well fields. An amendment proposed by Laura Dininni stating as much was voted down in a tie 2-2, with me in favor and Rita Graef and Steve Miller opposed. A less strict ban that can be appealed with a variance (a one-time exemption) might be proposed as part of zoning in a source water protection overlay. I’m less sanguine about that overlay because boards, like regulatory commissions, are too often rubber stamping agencies for monied interests. I said as much last night, meaning no offense to either developers, engineering firms, nor the members of the hearing boards themselves. The status quo is for money at the expense of other things, including our health.

Now blasting for housing developments isn’t like a fracking well pad or a compressor station. It’s not a quarry or a mine. But none of us on the board knew the effects of different kinds of blasting. In fact, John Sepp and engineer from PennTerra said that he isn’t an expert on blasting either. I take that as an indication that we should know more and proceed with caution in SADS. He, and two of my fellow board members, came to different conclusions. That tendency is at the heart of many of our problems from our corner of the world to the international stage. I concede that the ordinance places blasting as the last resort. In areas where tipping points could exist, I believe it’s best to steer clear.

But a bit more caution won on another measure. A bit. The ordinance as written mandated a 25-foot distance between infiltration basins and certain geologic features like sinkholes, fractures, and outcrops of bedrock in SADs. I proposed we move it to 50 feet. John Lichman of the State College Borough Water Authority said they would prefer 200 feet. So would I, and said so. I was pretty certain that we could double it. Later, another supervisor said they wouldn’t support 100 feet, so I picked the right number. It’s a modest win, but I’ll take it.

The train of development is moving. But where is it going? If I know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch and that I want our children and grandchildren to live here in a healthy place. People who live in Ferguson Township say that “aesthetics or natural beauty” and “environmental quality” are two of the most important things to them, scoring above the quality of public schools (which are very good). I believe very strongly that nature has to be protected and development must be managed. Ultimately, we care for ourselves when we care for nature. We can’t be neutral on this moving train.

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