Fredericton – Fredericton City Council voted 8-4 to approve a rezoning request on September 24th that will protect the Sunset Strawberry U-pick and the adjacent pine and oak forest in the city’s Northwest.
The approval was a hard fought victory for residents across the city, who mobilized to defend the property, located at 49 Ferris St. The city asked for expressions of interest in the property last fall, with a view to selling it for residential development.
Residents in Ward 1, however, quickly organized a petition, which collected over 2,000 signatures across the city in the dead of January. Volunteers went door to door, including Betty Hughson and Bob Morton, a couple in their 80s who single-handedly collected more than 800 signatures.
The future of the U-pick briefly became an election issue in April when the citizen initiated re-zoning request came before Council for referral. Several councilors and Mayor Brad Woodside vowed to defend the U-pick, but after the election, it appeared for a time that some preferred to divide the land and sell the forested section for suburban development.
Back in June, the Planning Advisory Committee (PAC) rejected a staff report from the City, which recommended the re-zoning to Agriculture and Open Space. The close 5-4 vote at the PAC meeting was carried when Dan Koncz, the committee chair and owner of Dynex Manufacturing, a buildings trade company, voted against the proposal.
The negative vote meant that a seven vote majority was needed at Council to carry the proposed amendment at third reading. Despite the uphill battle, residents across the city bore down and lobbied councilors hard, collecting several thousand more signatures on the petition, and writing numerous letters to local media.
In the end, eight councilors came on-side, including Marilyn Kerton (Ward 6), who had voted against it at PAC in June.
In his comments, Ward 1 Councilor Dan Kennan pointed out that the economic cost of not developing the property was minimal. “The houses will be built elsewhere,” he said, noting that there were several other areas in the city where residential R2 developments were taking place or could take place in future. The re-zoning, he said, “will enhance the area, and will have a positive impact on assessments,” around the U-pick and forest.
In one of the more spirited interventions, Councilor Eric Megarity (Ward 4) noted that “if the last hundred years in Fredericton was about development, the next hundred will be about the spaces we put in between those developments.”
Not all Councilors agreed. Stephen Chase (Ward 9) and Mike O’Brien (Ward 3) cited the economic costs to the city. Councilor Chase noted that the property, if fully developed, would add up to $900,000 in tax base to the city. His decision to vote against the proposal was based on fiscal prudence, he said, though he was not able to convincingly demonstrate that the revenues would be permanently lost to the city.
Scott McConaghy (Ward 7) and Stephen Hicks (Ward 5) also voted against the proposal.
One of the main issues in the debate was how much such residential developments would generate in tax revenue for the city. While developers pay the up-front costs of new infrastructure (roads, water and sewage), the city ultimately must pay to service and replace them. Some studies suggest that taxes will have to be prohibitively high in order to cover infrastructure renewal in the future.
One of the main variables, energy costs, is difficult to estimate 50 years into the future. Yet it seems certain that the sprawling neighbourhoods built after WWII during a period of low energy costs and low commodity prices is unlikely to continue in the 21st century, causing cities new fiscal difficulties.
New Brunswick’s three major cities – amongst the most sprawled in Canada – are particularly vulnerable as old infrastructure, spread out over larger built surfaces, costs more to replace than in average urban centres elsewhere in Canada.
Leading up to first and second reading on September 10th, many councilors were hoping to broker a compromise proposal which would have saved the strawberry U-pick, but sold the adjacent forest for development. Councilor O’Brien voted against the proposal in the hopes that such a compromise would come forward.
Neighbours, however, had already pointed out that the current forest would be fully mature in another 30 years, was home to wood turtles, a protected species, and successfully managed to tie the forest to the U-pick in the public’s mind.
“I just can’t believe it,” said a visibly emotional Gretta Wells, a retired civil servant, who spearheaded the movement of city residents to re-zone the property. “This was a gift in so many ways,” she said about the experience of working with people across the city to lobby for the re-zoning. “It was a team effort in every way, and getting to know some of our city councilors and how the City Hall process works was a learning experience as well.”