By LAURIE BALMUTH
Special to the News
I am a Hood River resident who grew up on the East Coast in Milford, Conn., a town much like Hood River. When I was a child, there were farms, orchards, horses, a clean waterfront on Long Island Sound and an historic downtown. Milford was a town where everyone was at the beach all summer, sailing, boating and swimming. In the winter, the schools and churches were our social centers. Kids rode their bikes everywhere. A big city, New York, was an hour or so away by train. My dad worked there for awhile. Large industries in Stratford, two towns away, employed many other dads. Milford was for a time a bedroom community. New residential housing was built and the town grew more populous but stayed essentially the same until the early 1960s when developers decided there was money to be made there.
There was no urban planning and so, first, a huge shopping center was built next to the freeway. It is mostly defunct today. Then a jai alai sports arena was built nearby. Gambling and the mob came with it. A couple of large factories were then sited not too far away. More strip malls, closer density lower end housing and more traffic made Milford a not so charming town. Property values fell. Any sense of place had been lost long ago and folks like us fled for Maine and beyond.
Back then, the town fathers (and mothers) had no way of shaping the town, urban planning was unknown and the populace was politically naive and unaware. The fact is, at that time, no one really knew the consequences of “growth.” Milford was an experiment, the kind of experiment urban planners have learned from.
Some older, established small towns in the East were subject to commercial pressures at a later time. Those with the most informed citizenry and potential for a better tax base held the line. Some have held on to their rural character to this day. These towns kept their small size and sense of community. Infrastructure was not increased, that is, new roads, schools, sewers, police, courts, jails were not required. As existing homes and businesses were sold for increasing prices, transfer taxes and property taxes increased. Folks who did not sell kept their old assessments and taxes increased at a pace with the market turnover, burdening those who had the dollars to spend and going much easier on those who did not. Folks will pay to live in a place like Hood River. Taxes can be structured so as not to burden long time residents and farmers.
Other such towns engaged in planned growth and became communities with extensive recreational facilities, cultural institutions, small colleges, and maintenance of open space through the existence of State Forests and zoned agricultural lands. High-density low-end commercial and residential development went elsewhere, to a town that needed it and wanted it. Lovely, historic and well-sited older towns do not “need” things like Wal-Marts, casinos, and high-density development.
The Port of Hood River is pushing the City for re-zoning of the waterfront. This will allow the Port to sell waterfront land to the highest bidder in order to fund projects in less desirable areas. This will hurt the town of Hood River.
The waterfront area is presently a wasteland of blowing dirt and foul odors. If the Port were a responsible agency, it would clean up and maintain the area.
Instead the Port has used its influence and credibility to “cry poor” to the City and argue its right to exploit our town. If the Port were a responsible agency it would work with the City to implement a Comprehensive Plan for the Waterfront. Instead the Port of Hood River proposes that a developer “plan” our waterfront. Developers are not Urban Planners. Developers do not have the resources or incentive to do a Comprehensive Plan. Developers are ONLY interested in their own bottom line. They don’t live here and if they do live here now and make a mess of the place they will take their money and run. It is up to the town to designate what it wants, if anything.
The Port of Hood River uses its status as a public agency to promote short term commercial concerns adverse to our city. We must not permit this to happen. If the Port will not step up on its own the City must force it to do so. If the Port refuses to clean up the area the City has the power to do the work and assess the adjacent property owner for the cost. That adjacent property owner is the Port of Hood River.
Some very basic properties of the waterfront area are:
1. The Columbia River frontage, windsurfing and viewing of windsurfing. Indicates a broad strip of park along the waterfront.
2. Windsurfing and other water recreation and tourism. Indicates recreational support such as windsurf rentals, kayak rentals, Hobie Cat rentals, launch sites, food concessions restaurants and similar kiting facilities on the spit. Some of these support areas would be located near the water and would be temporary structures. The proximity to the Freeway and railroad with attendant noise and dirt. This is the area for commercial, nonresidential, non-recreational buildings. Locating a small satellite college campus in Hood River would be a beneficial source of employment and could add to the cultural sense of community.
3. The existing boat basin. Houseboats would be a wonderful addition to Hood River and in keeping with the character of the town.
4. Location of the sewer treatment facility and wind-borne odors. All residential occupancy must be to the west and the south and out of the wind path of the odor. In the summer the wind comes from the west. Summer uses can then be placed to the East near the Hook.
5. Limited access across I-84. Freeway access and on and off ramps will dictate lower density, a benefit to Hood River, placing fewer demands on infrastructure and in keeping with the character of our town and sense of community by maintaining smaller size.
Laurie Balmuth, who lives in Hood River, submitted a copy of this letter to City of Hood River and City Council regarding the Hood River Waterfront planning process.