There’s a controversy in our town. The owner of the old mill building and dam developed by Daniel Curtiss would like to harness the power of the water to generate electricity. He lives and works in the old mill building, and would like to use the energy he generates to power his building. He would sell the excess power to the utility company. The controversy even reached the attention of the New York Times the other day.
It’s a thorny issue, because of course who wouldn’t want to generate power locally and use alternatives to carbon-based fuels? And yet the neighbors, who wouldn’t have direct access to the power generated, are concerned that the results will damage the beauty and natural – not serenity, exactly, because when is a large waterfall serene? – integrity, perhaps, of the local area. They’re concerned about property values and their quality of life in the neighborhood.
Some important questions are raised by this controversy, like who owns natural resources such as water or views? If a person holds legal title to something, and is legally and financially responsible for maintaining it, does he then get to do what he wants with it? What role does the common good play, and who gets to define what the common good is?
For those of us who love going over to this hidden part of Woodbury and enjoying the power and the serenity of watching water rushing over a dam (or trickling over during periods of low flow), the thought of losing the loveliness, even by a little bit, is very hard to take.
But at the same time, one remembers Daniel Curtiss. He was a pragmatic man who wanted to make a business using a resource that he owned: title to property including the river at that point, and the means to build a new-fashioned dam across it that could generate a good living for him and his heirs, and (we hope) a reasonable living for the people employed by him. The feelings of the neighbors, the environmental impact (except for the owners downriver who might be affected by water flows), didn’t even come into it for him.
During Daniel Curtiss’ day, the industrial buildings were not quaint and lovely artifacts, and the houses were not antiques.
The whole neighborhood was organized around manufacturing. Now, of course, it would be impossible to make a profit manufacturing anything in significant quantities, even if one could get permission to do so, and the neighborhood, close-knit and off the beaten path, is strictly residential. The idea of the common good is broader and more inclusive than ever it was in the 19th Century, and that is a good thing. While one does not want to put a glass dome over the area and try in that way to stop time, I still can’t help wondering if the amount of energy generated by the water, balanced against the short and long term enjoyment of the views, is really worth it.