People in tiny Forest City, N.B. have always had a lot in common with their American neighbours across the U.S. border — but now they’re experiencing a case of unwelcome déjà vu.
The handful of year-round residents in the cluster of homes north of McAdam say the federal government’s plans for an expanded, modern Canadian customs building will disrupt the quiet, quaint community.
“It places the building right out here in the middle of this wonderful space,” says George Guimond, a retired architect whose house sits on a wedge of land between the existing building and the St.Croix River.
“And of course if you have the building with the roadways, it all has to be lit, it has to have fencing, so it's beginning to be a point where this building and all of its infrastructure is going to totally intrude on the very essence of what Forest City is all about. It's just a small little community, and it kind of overpowers it."
The plans by the Canada Border Services Agency, and the local reaction against them, are uncannily similar to what happened on the U.S. side of the community just five years ago.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security moved to expropriate the property of Jane Johnson, who lives across the bridge in Forest City, Maine. The plan was to build a large, $16 million DHS building with four-lane approach roads.
Johnson called the plan absurd because the Forest City border crossing sees at most 10 cars per day at the height of summer. Fewer than 20 people, Canadians and Americans, live in the community year-round. The population grows in the summer when cottagers and fishing lodge guests arrive.
Johnson, a former staffer to a Republican senator, used her connections to lobby against the new building. After Fox News broadcast a story highlighting the proposal as an example of wasted tax dollars, Washington scaled back its plans to a $6 million building.
While U.S. residents say the structure isn’t as bad as it could have been, they still consider it too big and too ugly for the community, which straddles a stream connecting two lakes in the St. Croix system.
"I think there's something to be said for keeping some values and some grounding that goes with a village,” Johnson says. “And I think there's been too much of that lost, all over, not just here. But I hate to see it coming here. And it has come on this side. And I hate to see it come on the other side."
The American building was finished in 2011. Its construction was annoying and disruptive for people on both sides of the border, says Ann Hanson, whose house on the Canadian side is closest to the 10-metre bridge.
"The lights and the action we had during the American customs building being built a few years ago was torturous, absolutely torturous,” she says. “I couldn't sleep. I'm the first house and the noise would come down at me and it was terrible."
Everyone attributed the project to the U.S. government’s reaction to the threat of terrorism after 9/11, but no one imagined the Canadian government would follow suit.
Guimond and Hanson say they’ve heard nothing official from the Canada Border Services Agency, but one of their neighbours, whose property is across the road from the border building, has been approached to sell one-third of their land.
The neighbours, who refused to sell, were given a proposed design for the new Canadian facility. It shows wider approach roads and a larger building that would gobble up part of their property.
It would also force Ann Hansen to re-route her driveway across the front yard of her next-door neighbours, Carl and Bertha Higgs.
"I think it's stupid,” says Carl Higgs, a retired Canada Customs officer. “This is only a little village. We've got a nice little village here. I don't want to see it torn to pieces."
His wife Bertha calls it “ridiculous, because we don't have the traffic."
Tamara Gates-Hollingsworth, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, says the design plan Guimond is referring to was “for planning purposes only” and “is no longer being considered.”
But she confirms that Forest City is one of seven small border stations across Canada that’s been identified for expansion.
The new structure “will project a professional and modern look” and “will be integrated in the community and local roadways in the most efficient manner possible,” she says.
Gates-Hollingsworth says once CBSA moves ahead, it will be “engaging the council” in Forest City about the plan. (Forest City, an unincorporated rural community, has no council.)
The New Brunswick residents of Forest City say they don’t oppose a new building as long as it’s not intrusive.
Hanson says there was a heating oil spill at the existing building 15 years ago that has never been cleaned up, and if the upgrade deals with that problem, she would welcome it.
Guimond, a retired architect, has come up with his own design which would not require Ottawa buying any additional land.
“The profile of the building would be the same so that the architecture of it fits in with the community,” he says. “Everything would function normally, without the massive intrusion of the alternate approach."
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