Beauty and the evil beast of progress

ON THE BAY

March 06, 1993|By TOM HORTON

I give many talks about the Chesapeake Bay, and often the best part is after I finish, when some of the audience drift up and discuss what's on their minds about the environment.

Almost always, we get to talking about where they grew up, not about toxic chemicals or water quality.

Last week, at Randolph Macon College, I spoke with a husky kid from Virginia's lovely, rural Northern Neck, the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers.

He said he had really wanted to be a crabber; he loved the lifestyle. But it just didn't seem like a good bet anymore, the way the Northern Neck was changing, as Richmond, Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Washington all encroached.

The river, the Rappahannock, was actually pretty healthy, he said. It was the landscape that was beginning to deteriorate; access to the waterfront -- at least any that a waterman could afford -- seemed more endangered than crabs or rockfish.

His professor joined in, about how developers in his home country in suburban Philadelphia had just about finished filling in the very last little pockets of meadow and woods with more pavement.

There is a theme here that runs wider and deeper through modern American life than most of us realize. It is becoming popular these days to talk about how Americans in their suburban bedroom communities have a yearning to recapture a "sense of community."

The phrase usually refers to the community of humans; but I think we are suffering equally from a sense of disenfranchisement, a painful jilting in our relationships to the landscape.

I feel it all the time on my daily walks through the land where I live, in the county -- Wicomico -- where I was born, a county once characterized by David Brower, a former president of the Sierra Club, as having some of the worst, most mindless sprawl development in America.

I expect Mr. Brower says that everywhere he speaks; and I expect he is almost always right.

You round a corner of old familiar forest and see orange or red flags put there to guide bulldozer operators as they carve a path through the trees for the road pavers, and the builders who will follow.

You come to a rolling vista of farmland you have enjoyed through cycles of planting and harvest, fruiting and fallowness, and spot the white plastic pipes that mean the land is being perc-tested for septic drainage, and subdivision.

Of course, we can't freeze our landscapes in amber, like lovely fossils -- and, of course, population is growing and must be housed.

The issue is not so much whether we grow, but how. Patterns of growth matter more than sheer numbers of people and amounts of pavement and open space. In the pattern lies the beauty, or the ugliness.

Our current approach to landscape could scarcely be worse. We have zoned virtually every acre of private forest, farm and open space for development. "Agriculture zoning" or "forest resource zoning" only differs from residential or commercial zoning in density, not in intent.

And current zoning laws invite well-financed development interests to pick away at technical loopholes and overturn the best-laid plans for preserving open spaces.

To try and compensate for this self-imposed mess, to effectively shrink the huge target we have created for rampant development, we enact laws and regulations by the bushel: a law to preserve trees, another to protect waterfront, another to protect nontidal wetlands and other programs to preserve farms.

Each, by itself, has a noble purpose. But such piecemeal approaches, though they have enormous environmental benefits, have not and will not give us pleasing landscapes, and a vitally important aesthetic balance between humans and nature.

Current measures create the maximum regulatory burdens for landowners and developers, and are enormously expensive; buying back the open space we have put at risk through zoning will cost billions if we pursue it seriously.

A more visionary approach to preserving balance and beauty would essentially give development far more incentive to occur where it has traditionally existed -- towns and cities, for example -- and far more reason to avoid what is rural and scenic and prime for growing crops and trees.

That is often painted as radical; but what's more radical, in my opinion, is pursuing a course that guarantees we will live amid increasing ugliness on the lands of the Chesapeake region, even as we spend huge amounts to clean up the bay itself.

Radical is the thought that regions so unique we capitalize them, like Eastern Shore and Northern Neck, are on a sure path to becoming New Jersey Suburbs.

Radical is the thinking that says every county in Maryland ought to be thankful for a Wal-Mart, or a huge shopping mall; radical is the notion that an ever-higher standard of living, as measured by the property tax base, is always the same as a higher quality of life.

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