The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge.

The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little
knowledge.  The fault was mine.

“Damage” by Wendell Berry

Friends and citizens,

Tonight the Ferguson Township board of supervisors will have a number of hearings on ordinances and resolutions on domestic hens, a small change for the year’s budget, a possible traffic calming study, and a proposed concept plan for the Pine Hall traditional town development (TTD). I am celebrating the pending chicken ordinance and concerned about the Pine Hall TTD. I’ll spend a little bit of time on chickens and much more on Pine Hall, some on policy and some ruminating on land and legacy. Suffice to say that I’m already grieving.

The chicken ordinance comes after a citizen put it on our plate. After a few months of work, the township staff has put together an ordinance that allows residents in single family dwellings to have up to six hens in their yards. We’ve applied provisions for disposal of chicken manure, structures, setbacks from adjacent properties, and access to the outdoors. There is also a one-time $25 permitting fee. Given that citizens have come to meetings to advocate for the ordinance, it’ll feel good to get it off the ground. But not all items on tonight’s agenda will be to our liking.

Tonight, representatives of Keller Engineering will speak before the board and public on a concept plan revising the Pine Hall Town Center Traditional Town Development Master Plan. It has been under revision for the last few months with input from township staff. I think you might be interested in three things: the developer’s requests for modifications and waivers, revisions to meet the new storm water ordinance, and the fact that this will level dozens of acres of woodland. The last of these is what I’m most worried about.

pine hall
The proposed Pine Hall TTD is slated to be put in between Blue Course Drive, Old Galesburg Rd., Science Park Rd. and Southwick Blvd. Smack in the middle is a large woodlot used by citizens from around the region for recreation.

First, the developer will be asking for modifications on a number of plan aspects that have to do with density, roadway connectivity, commercial development, and parking. Some of these requests are important. For example, how much parking space would the commercial area need to be viable commercial district? But is this commercial parking necessarily laid out on the flat? Under a new urban paradigm, do we build up or build out?

[UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the development includes a request for more student housing. Has anyone been paying attention to the rancor over the proposed Boxes…err…Cottages development?]

Second, the public should note that Keller and the developer will also have to do significant changes to the original plan’s storm water management. Our board recently adopted a new and more environmentally protective stormwater ordinance. The storm water management, though, is unrealized on the concept plan itself. We have assurances that this includes the use of stormwater rate control and capture/recharge functions and of proposed stormwater best management practices on the western part of the TTD, and upgrades  to facilities that were previously designed and approved for the eastern watershed. The plan still has a riparian buffer on the western half of the site and a set-aside for an area with Nolin soils. These are things to be tentatively glad about. But this plan worries me.

Third, the Pine Hall TTD is slated to level dozens of acres of woodland. Every day, people run, walk, and mountain bike in a wonderful rat maze of twisting trails covered in roots and fallen logs. People with dogs go for a leisurely stroll. Trail runners pick different paths around the paths, paths that look like a toddler’s drawing when they’re mapped. For years, mountain bikers in the area have met on Tuesday nights to pursue one another around a four-mile course keeping their eyes on the churning wheel ahead of them and their legs turning pedals even as they dive into sharp loamy corners. Other times you’ll find young couples taking their first mountain bike rides there. My son surmounted his first fallen log in those woods. There are features, like this one below, that take practice and concentration. I, myself, have learned to ride the length of logs there.

Part of who I am, who many of us are, is in some part because of this place. We are made of the effort of launching a fallen oak log and the sound of chipmunks running away at that moment. But it’s not just recreation.

It’s about the systems that support us and the lives of the creatures we inhabit this world with. That woodlot holds and purifies water better than any storm basin in the world can. The thousands of hardwoods, fiddleheads and store thousands upon thousands of tons of carbon. The stormwater basins, grass, and few dozen cultivated trees will store some fraction of that. The plant life there does another small service for us by providing us with oxygen. It’s a way station for migrating song birds and a home to barred owls. Just last week I came upon a fawn and her doe who bounded through brush, their white tails clear as day as they escaped.

The hungry hydra of “development” just chews and chews and chews.  As Wendell Berry has written, what took decades to grow will disappear with the quick action of a few bulldozers. Even at this small scale, one can see the dangers of an ever-growing economy, no matter how well managed. Management doesn’t work when we say “yes” to too much. Eventually, it eats up what supports us. Our peace of mind. Beauty. Health.

I have no clear trajectory for tonight’s meeting. By role I have to ask questions and that I will. By heart I have to witness and persist in conserving all the land that I can. By conscience I have to say that I am afraid and sad for what may come to be. Here could come another piece of woodland turned into another set of sprawling cookie cutter development, another monoculture plot of “development” that dulls the senses, limits the imagination, and steals the homes of how many more creatures…my friends and I included? The Pine Hall woodlot has been our home for many hundreds of hours.

As Wendell Berry wrote in “Damage,” “the trouble is a familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge.” I’d add to that too little love for what holds us all together. Will the fault be mine? I hope not. As I’ve written before,

What we stand for, we literally stand on. The medium beneath our feet is the message of our lives. That to which we attend with our time and our hands is what we tell the world we seek.

I will take root more deeply here. How I live here is my legacy. My legacy is this place.



One thought on “The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge.

  1. Very thought provoking story. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it up and share it.

    I was wholly unaware of the entire issue, completely. I had driven down that stretch of newly reconstructed Old Gatesburg Road and was pleasantly shocked to see a genuine traffic circle in the wild. Right here. Amazing. There was a lot of good thought that went into that entire landscape design and civil engineering project. That said,
    no one builds anything, much less anything that well executed (all things considered) unless they have big things in mind. I did make a mental note of that as I drove past that small wood.

    As a refugee of the Northern Virginia (greater DC metro area), I have watched this same set of moves unfold over the decades. Watched wonderful stands of small forests being bulldozed in a shockingly short period of time and turned into asphalt and ugly boxy buildings, which in turn, end up sitting vacant for as much as a third of the first decade, and after 2 or 3 decades, with the coltsfoot and dandilion growing out of the cracks in the warped pavement of the parking lots, go begging for *any* tenant, any tenant at all. Then eventually bulldozed again, and repurposed into some other new model of what will build a set of loans that can be modeled into some investment scheme or another. All the while, those on the planning commissions, boards of the banks, etc, have long since taken their money and retired, while those younger people serving in the local governments are wondering how in the heck they can accomplish anything, saddled as they are with massive tax shortfalls, crumbling services and infrastructure and an ever increasing need against a political environment where the very idea that we have to actually have to pay the bills for the money making parties of the past is quite the anathema indeed.

    Right now, today, one can go sit at the bus stop on Colonnade, across from the top-shopping-spot of that horror of a parking lot at Wegmans, , and take a moment (you have quite a few if you are waiting for the bus) to regard the running red lines of rust working down the masonry, the massive piles of bird guano covering everything in the structure, the chipping brickwork, exposed reinforcing structure and so forth. Then one can look across Colonnade to the strange brick wall thing, and see much of the same sort of decay. Make note of the dirt ‘desire lines’ cut across the grass “green space” from the adjoining strip mall because no paved path was provided. One might wonder how old this whole thing is exactly, and of course, the answer is not that old. What is it? 15 years maybe? Already in decay. Who is supposed to pay to keep it up? That shopping mecca is still only partially occupied. National chain marquees go up, and then they come down again as the money chases off in a new direction. It is readily apparent, if viewed with the right kind of eyes, that this was never built to last, it was built to draw the money out of our town, into the hands of folks who have no vested long term interest until the finances no longer make sense, at which point it will be abandoned. We have plenty of abandoned retail and commercial space already dotting the centre region. In another 15 years more, if things go as the growth proponents predict, the abandoned ring of decay will be out beyond the Homedepot/Lowes boundary. Who is expected to pony up to maintain the water, sewer, gas, power etc infrastructure as the ring grows? It’s known and accepted that Walmart looks at 15 years at the outside for any given building before they pull back and punt. That’s just financial responsibilty to any of type retailer. Property developers don’t actually differentiate between retail and commercial for reasons of economics. Look at how commercial property loans work. The turnover of those loans is pretty quick if one only is familiar with residential mortgages. it’s a different animal, subject to different pressures. And this animal should be approached with a high degree of caution.
    Big stuff gets built. That money gets spent therefore made, and that’s all gone now. After those folks have moved on, we remain, and we hold all the bills for it all, so what will we do with our money?

    As I zoom out from the wood in the center of your story, and look at the immediate area, I see huge swaths of underutilized sprawl. How many hectares of biological desert in the form of mowed and maintained grass are within 1 mile of the boundary of the wood? Folks insist that this is a good thing, that this is groundwater recharge. that permeable surface trumps pavement. On that last point, I can’t disagree. But I do wonder about the long term prudence of leaving groundwater recharge to the work of over-mowed, over-treated ‘lawn’ writ large? Permeable parking lots are utilized all over the world. Want to build new commercial space? why not construct right there? Commercial building vegetated roofs are in use in many places in the world, and from the air, look pretty good. The replacement of treated grass monocultures with roof top wild meadows is a big win for biological diversity. Runoff/groundwater discharge can be handled with under building sumps. Given the engineering challenges of construction on top of our regional karst topology, constructing foundational recharge sumps has already been considered for some of the local construction, and can be widly adopted, I’d argue *should* be adopted, which could arguably address much if not all of the concerns oft tended by the mosquito pit/evap ponds so often seen.

    The challenges are legion, but there are engineering solutions that can be considered to address many of these. The big question that immediately pops to the top is ‘how can anyone afford this?’ The criticism that building something to have a minimal foot print for 50 or better years into the future is very difficult to defend given the options to do it cheap because no one can predict what will happen in 50 years is a very valid criticism indeed. No one can (with confidence) predict out that far. Economic models often employed don’t do that. Well, , that underlines my point very well, Given that we don’t know, maybe we should be *very* careful about burying our natural world under concrete and asphalt. handy stuff, life. Never know when it will be wanted again.


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