Lifestyles of the Rich and Pitiful

COMMENT

March 05, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

First, let me say that I love the country.

love farmland, wooded acres, spacious pastures, bubbling brooks, rolling hills -- all of it.

My wife and I have always dreamed that one day we'll buy that secluded cottage, something right out of a Disney movie, surrounded by lush trees and beautiful flowers. And not a soul in sight.

But the truth is, we'll probably stay right where we are, in a modest house on less than a quarter-acre, on a cul-de-sac, surrounded by houses that look just like ours. We'll have to contend with rush-hour traffic, neighbors we don't like, schools that are overcrowded. And do you know what?

We're lucky as all get out to have it.

The truth is, most people would love to have what I've got.

I believe people like me need to show restraint and that complaining only proves how spoiled we can be once we're blessed with a little privilege.

That's the thought that kept coming to my mind last week as I read Sun staff writer Erik Nelson's four-day series on growth in Howard County.

As much as I would have liked to empathize with the people quoted in the series who complained about development encroaching on their idyllic rural communities, I couldn't muster it.

People who live in mini-mansions on three-acre lots just don't, in my mind, qualify for pity. But there they were, in all their innocence and honesty.

There was Janice Bossart of Pendell School Road near Fulton, facing the prospect of several houses being built on the wooded lot behind her home. "Any day now, they're going to be growing houses over there," she said. "I need the solitude and the spaciousness. I don't like people all around me."

And there was Debby Pappy, living in a $400,000 home on three acres in Clarksville. Even though her property is surrounded by a permanent preserve, nearby development has her moving to a more rural area in South Carolina.

"When we first moved here, there was a rural flavor to Howard County," Ms. Pappy said.

"There were many more farmers. Especially in Clarksville, everyone was a close neighbor," she said. "Now, it's a community of strangers. It's sad."

What is infinitely more sad to me is how our culture breeds selfishness, and how important it is to try and maintain a sense of humility and gratitude.

None of us is immune to this trap because it is thoroughly a byproduct of our capitalistic society. For all the advances it nurtures, capitalism encourages insatiable urges for more and better.

Poor people want to be middle class. The middle class wants to be rich. The rich want to be richer.

In our quest for more, we often fail to appreciate our relative wealth.

Rather than accept that wealth is not always based on material things, we gauge our position in society by how much we can denigrate others.

Consider the derisive ways in which slow-growth advocates refer to Columbia in order to make a point about the kind of lifestyle they fear.

You would think this suburban nirvana were something on the order of an urban debacle.

Tell the people of New York City that Columbia is "too congested," or that it's "a breeding ground for crime."

The truth is, Columbia is one of the more livable cities in the nation, and a monument to the successful integration of man and nature. It's not the country, but neither is it a concrete jungle. Howard County, in fact, owes a debt of gratitude to Columbia.

The quality of county schools, the numerous other public services, the conveniences of stores and restaurants -- all are due in large measure to the sane and reasonable growth Columbia represents.

Columbia also helps to drive up the values of those much coveted, rural properties in the west. Were it not for the commerce generated by Columbia, most of Howard County might still be owned by a handful of farmers.

And the fact that farmers are the ones who have invited interest in their land is testament to an aspect of American life that is even more prevalant than capitalism: The rights of the individual property owner are supreme.

You can only go so far in curtailing those rights before you start fiddling with the Constitution, which emphasizes the individual over the majority.

That's why the best hope for slow-growth advocates -- and all of us who enjoy a day in the country -- is for the county to continue its farm preservation incentives.

Purchasing the development rights of landowners is the only way to protect the land and safeguard the rights of farmers. Even with the preservation program, of course, there's a certain inevitability about growth in Howard County.

xTC And all the efforts to curtail it can't stop people from seeking their share of the American dream.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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