How an Abbotsford neighbourhood got – and lost – its gold-plated hydrants

Staff warned 25 years ago that it was a bad idea to allow developer to install golden hydrants

It was the fall of 2018 and some residents of an Eagle Mountain neighhourhood were mad.

City staffers had begun popping up into their neighbourhood and painting a key piece of infrastructure.

In other neighbourhoods, that would not have been a cause for residents to warn politicians that they were jeopardizing their re-election chances. But other neighbourhoods didn’t have golden fire hydrants.

“Some fool painted the gold hydrants in Eagle Mountain subdivision,” one person wrote in an email obtained by The News. “These hydrants were polished and gold plated at a cost of thousands of dollars each. They were beautiful and the focal point of the whole neighbourhood. My neighbours and I are furious and feel like our neighbourhood has been vandalized by the works yard … I’m preparing a petition against all involved and with an election coming, the people of [REDACTED] will remember this.”

• • • • •

The story of the Eagle Mountain golden hydrants is less about the dozen or so unhappy residents who complained about the city, and more about how the extravagant pieces came to the neighbourhood in the first place. And they may provide hints as to why governments have become less receptive to builders or residents who want to customize every element of their properties.

It was not unforeseen that the installation of gold-plated hydrants in a single Abbotsford neighbourhood might end in some angst.

In 1994, the Abbotsford Development Corporation asked what was then the District of Abbotsford if it could install brass fire hydrants and “higher standard” street-light fixtures in the development it was building on Eagle Mountain. The district gave the go-ahead, as long as the fire department was fine with the hydrants.

A year later, the District of Abbotsford was no more. It had amalgamated with the District of Matsqui to form the City of Abbotsford.

And the first two hydrants to be installed weren’t brass at all. They were, as Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil would famously bellow in a movie to be released seven years later, goooooooooold.

The switcheroo didn’t go over well with the City of Abbotsford’s engineering manager, Jim Duckworth.

In a 1995 report, Duckworth gently wrote that engineering “is not opposed to aesthetic improvements,” then proceeded to rattle off several problems with the new hydrants.

For one, a pair of hydrants had been in the ground for just a couple months and were already peeling and rusting. (By 2018, staff would report that gold plating had began to flake off in “thin sharp shards.”)

Click here to enlarge documents, press back to return. Story continues below

The hydrants were also mightily expensive, costing about $1,800 each. In 1995, that sum could buy about as much as $3,000 can buy today. But gold-plating a hydrant would likely cost much more because the price of gold has risen from about $350 an ounce to around $1,500.

In general, Duckworth warned that increasing the number of “standard” infrastructure items increases costs to the city, and he recommended that the council of the day tell the developer to revert to standard hydrants and light poles in future phases of the development.

The paper trail on the hydrant issue goes cold there, and Coun. Patricia Ross – the one remaining council holdover from 1995 – says she doesn’t remember the issue.

But whatever the case, what is clear is that the developer kept on installing the gold-plated hydrants.

Over the next nine years, another 23 hydrants would be installed as the Eagle Mountain neighbourhood grew.

And they made an impact on residents and visitors.

“We love them,” one resident wrote in 2018 after the hydrants in the neighbourhood began turning white and blue.

“When we looked at purchasing our new home we looked at many different neighbourhoods and cities,” another wrote to the city. “[REDACTED] here in Abbotsford was by far the most beautiful and unique street we had looked at.” The person pointed to the “non cookie cutter” style of the development and the gold hydrants.

Others suggested the new white-and-blue colour scheme wasn’t in keeping with the rest of the area.

“They are an eyesore,” one resident complained. “We pay a lot of taxes for the privilege of living in this neighbourhood. I am extremely disappointed that we get very few services for the $6,000-plus that you collect from each household.”

Several complained that residents had not been consulted, and on that note, Rob Isaac, the city’s acting general manager in charge of engineering and general utilities, struck a conciliatory note.

“We do apologize that this project began before proper analysis was conducted, including understanding of the impact on the neighbourhood.”

• • • • •

The residents’ complaints did not entirely fall on deaf ears. But they also didn’t lead to the return of gold hydrants to Eagle Mountain.

After the neighbours complained, city staffers took a closer, more thorough, look at paint schemes, the costs to keep some in gold, and what provisions might have been made by the developer when the hydrants were first installed.

Residents pointed out that the developer of the neighbourhood had supplied replacement hydrants. This was true, except the city had received only two extra gold-plated hydrants and had long since cycled through that meagre supply of extras.

While some were under the impression that money had been set aside to maintain the hydrants, a staffer replied in an email that city planning officials had combed through agreements signed at the time and had turned up no golden fire hydrant maintenance fund.

“Any maintenance,” Jamie Austin, the city’s director of utilities operations, wrote in an email, “that has been done comes from the general hydrant account which is used to service all 4500+ hydrants in the city.”

In the end, it came down to those costs. The eventual conclusion was simple: it didn’t make fiscal sense to keep the hydrants golden in a single Eagle Mountain neighbourhood.

Austin had suggested in emails that one option could be to coat, rather than re-plate, the hydrants. When the matter came before the city, council was told simply: “Staff reviewed other resurfacing options, but all were found to cost significantly more than the existing city standard.” (A spokesperson pointed to the 1995 document citing the $1,800 gold-hydrant cost when asked about costs by The News.)

And so, when the hydrant issue came before council earlier this month, it died a quiet death. No one spoke up for the gold hydrants. No one spoke against. Council simply agreed with staff’s recommendation that the hydrants in an Abbotsford neighbourhood should be treated like all other hydrants in the city.

• • • • •

When we first reported on this issue going before council, readers took note that residents of a relatively well-off neighbourhood had complained that their hydrants weren’t gold. There was not overwhelming sympathy. But one Eagle Mountain resident urged people to be nice.

“I have zero clue where this request came from. You know what we have requested? More traffic control so that no one speeds through the park zone to keep your kids safe,” she wrote.

“We do not act like we are better than every other neighborhood and please be kind as we love to welcome people into our neighborhood.”

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