Old neighbors, new neighbors

March 10, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- When my neighbor Crawford Briney stopped by our farm the other morning, I wasn't home, but he left word that he needed to see me. As far as I was concerned, that was the same as a summons. When I got the message I headed for his place right away.

Mr. Briney has the farm on the corner, about a mile down the road. He and his younger brother Leonard, who lives right across from us, have been our neighbors since we moved in. That was 50 years ago this May, right after my father got out of the Army. I was a little boy. Crawford Briney, if my arithmetic is right, must have been about 40 then.

Anyway, I hurried on over, hoping nothing was wrong. Nothing was. Mr. Briney was just driving in. He wanted to pay me for baling some straw for him last summer. He hadn't forgotten about it, he said, and had kept thinking he'd see me, but we had both been busy and the time had just slipped away. So he'd gone looking for me.

The hottest day

I remembered very well the day I'd done the work. It had been the hottest day of a hot summer. That hadn't stopped Mr. Briney, but his baler had been acting up. Because I was already working in his field with my equipment, baling straw that I'd bought from him, and because I had a couple of strong young helpers available, it was easy enough for us to finish the job and put the rest of the straw in his barn.

I hadn't really wanted to be paid for the work. We'd done it to be neighborly. But there are two sides to that. By making sure that he did pay for the help we provided, Mr. Briney was being neighborly too. He and I both understood that. Other people might not. Concepts of neighborliness keep on changing, just as neighborhoods do.

Pretty soon Mr. Briney is going to have some new neighbors. The farm next to his is being developed. The earth-moving machinery is already at work, and more than 20 new houses are planned. It's likely they'll be big, expensive houses, to go with the big, expensive lots into which the farm was subdivided.

It's safe to predict that the new houses will be occupied by people who like the idea of living in the country. They won't be farmers, or want to be; they'll commute to what must be pretty good jobs quite a few miles away. But perhaps they'll be gardeners, and probably most of them will enjoy mowing the grass on their large lots.

When they look across the road from the seats of their riding mowers and see Mr. Briney at work on his tractor, they'll find the sight comforting, because it will seem to confirm the rural nature of their new homes.

And it goes without saying that if signs went up on Mr. Briney's farm saying that more new houses were to be built there, residents of the subdivision across the road would be the first ones to appear at the zoning hearing. Development of the Briney farm, they or their lawyers would inevitably argue, ought to be denied, because it would change the neighborhood.

When the change came

Obviously, new subdivisions do represent change. But one could argue that in most rural communities the real changes, the changes that made most farming untenable and exurban housing desirable, took place long before the first red-flagged surveyors' stakes sprouted like bright weeds in pastures and cornfields. The new houses only confirm that.

That would not be a popular argument in many circles, because it would seem to be pro-development. And development, especially the conversion of farmland and other open space into residential housing, is not a popular process. Both locally and nationally, tremendous political and rhetorical force is constantly mobilized to prevent it.

The housing pattern produced by people freely negotiating to buy land where they prefer and can afford to live is condescendingly referred to as ''sprawl.'' Opponents compare it to a virus or a cancer, and push for new laws which they say will cure it.

''Planned'' and ''orderly''

As a substitute they advocate something called ''planned growth'' or ''orderly development,'' which generally means making sure that people have to live where the experts and the governments say they should. Sometimes they back this up with demands for increased public expenditure on mass transit, and new laws to make it more expensive or otherwise difficult to own and operate automobiles.

For some reason, not everybody favors these ideas. Even a few of us who live in what some people still consider the country aren't all that appreciative of them.

But maybe we just don't understand. As I drove back from Mr. Briney's, I had to admit that maybe it really would be nice for our little community if the government could order the countryside to stay exactly the way it is. And then the planners could begin working to make it better still, like maybe exactly the way it was 50 years ago.


Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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