What does community mean to you? Is it where you live? Your circle of friends? Your church or favorite organization? I’ve been thinking about the importance of building community quite a bit lately, but not just any community: a community that builds up its members and welcomes newcomers, and that protects the disadvantaged while welcoming everyone including the strongest and most fortunate. How can a community like that be created and maintained? Only with a completely compelling, shared vision and the unshakable belief that it CAN be achieved.

The Bible says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV) and “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea, 4:6 KJV). These two passages refer to knowing and keeping God’s Word as found in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.  I believe that people of good will from all faiths understand basic concepts of obeying laws, seeking justice, helping those in need, preserving natural resources and beauty, seeking agreement through peaceful dialogue, and more – there can be no lasting civilization without these values.

Why am I wrestling with this question? My heart and mind right now are focused on the little town where I’ve lived for almost 10 years. I really believe that the future of our sense of community is at stake. At the heart of the divide is a zoning issue. A large, national trucking company wants to build a maintenance and repair facility for big rigs on an 8-acre parcel right next to our early 19th century historic district (most of the buildings in the neighborhood, including an exquisite state park, are listed in the National Historic Register). As a former thriving steel town, we still have some industry within our Borough limits, but it is light, clean, and relatively unobtrusive. The parcel in question was rezoned from industrial to commercial use several years ago after the factories on it were demolished and a brownfields project remediated the soil.

The trucking company is asking for a variance to put its industrial use (including paint and hydraulic fluids, and associated marshaling yard light, noise, and dust) back on that precious soil. Yes, we’d love for our Borough to have more tax revenue. Yes, there would be a few good-paying jobs created, though it would be unlikely that Borough residents would get them. Yes, there would be an influx of potential customers for local restaurants and other businesses. But there would also be a huge increase in truck traffic, the kind of trucks with trailers that cause traffic jams and can result in damage and danger when they turn onto narrow, older streets. The company argues that they have been and are a “good neighbor” in all their current locations and that, anyway, they bought the parcel here with the understanding that the use itself would not be a problem. There are many problematic issues related to the way that the company presented its project to government officials at the state, county, and local levels.

The issue that has caused the most consternation among our local residents, however, is probably that the entire process had remained completely under the radar of public scrutiny and consideration until just before the variance hearing took place. No public hearings on the environmental impacts. No meetings with residents living around the parcel to build good will. Nothing. Just a zoning hearing board meeting with a highly restrictive focus on whether the company was facing a hardship within the applicable laws and ordinances if the variance was not granted. The hearing ran for 5 ½ hours with both company and members of the public offering comments. The residents were at a severe disadvantage, since they didn’t know until the hearing was unfolding what the discussion parameters would be.

Back to community. My humble opinion is that our town is facing this explosive issue because we do not have a unified vision for change and growth that is:

    1. Agreed upon by all constituent groups,
    2. Documented in writing and posted publicly,
    3. Enforced by government and private individuals and groups, and
    4. Celebrated and perpetuated in all areas and levels of public life.

Our government officials are not being held to account to ensure that initiatives taken between 2000 and 2006 to preserve our historic district and adjacent land are honored, developed, and nourished.

The good news is that there are many bonds that hold our residents together: friendships, church and social group affiliations, charitable groups, veteran groups, beautification groups, a very strong live music community, great appreciation for our unique local history, a historic and thriving library, a business district revival, to name a few. Despite political, ethnic, and socio-economic differences, local residents have the strongest love and pride for their town that I have ever experienced in the many, many places I have lived. There are some residents who support the trucking company project, mostly for the hope of tax revenue, jobs, and customers. The vision of those who oppose the trucking facility is for continuing investment of time, talent, and treasure into reviving historic Ambridge and its ability to offer quaint, cultured, and quiet small town living. The sides are not acting as enemies for the most part. This fact alone gives me hope that we can hold together.

What is coming? The residents who oppose the trucking project have raised money to retain an attorney and to buy a copy of the transcript of the hearing. Over $4000 was raised through donations and personal loans in less than 4 weeks. This is just the beginning, of course, as the losing side will surely appeal the zoning hearing board’s decision. Even if they prevail in the courts, these residents know that – without a concrete, documented, enforceable plan for the future and an educated and involved citizenry – there will continue to be one battle after another.

Back to community. Over the last month, I have observed firsthand the strength of the sense of community that arises when shared assumptions about “where we are and where we are going” come under direct attack. Many narrow definitions of community are being put aside so that a diverse array of residents and property/business owners can face a perceived threat to the larger (and future) common good.

From the Wellness Made Simple perspective, I’d say that the big lesson being learned here is that having a vision and a PLAN to achieve that vision that you share and work toward with others can produce passion, drive, persistence, and achievement that might never have been experienced otherwise by the individuals involved.

What does “community” mean to you? Do you feel that you are engaged in one or more true communities? What difference does community involvement make in your daily life? If you’d like to partner to come up with strategies to build community into your life, let’s talk!

Wellness Made Simple helps you to simplify the way YOU do well…for life!

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