Some folks just LIKE suburban sprawl

July 14, 1996|By ELISE ARMACOST

DEBBIE SHAUGHNEY lives in Happy Acres on Smiley Drive, one of a gazillion new subdivisions in Carroll County. Floating among the cornfields midway between Westminster and New Windsor, Happy Acres is a poster child for suburban sprawl.

It is the kind of land-hungry development Gov. Parris N. Glendening railed against when he unveiled a $46 million plan to encourage families to buy homes in older neighborhoods, like Brooklyn Park, Reisterstown and Hillendale. Happy Acres has big, one- to three-acre lots and wide streets tailor-made for all the minivans and four-by-fours in the driveways, which makes sense since you can't get a loaf of bread, a newspaper or a video short of a 20-minute ride into town.

''Neo-urbanists''

There's been a lot of ganging up lately on the Happy Acres of the world. A new breed of architects, planners and builders -- ''neo-urbanists,'' they call themselves -- reviles suburbia, calling instead for a return to old-style villages and towns. We used to see suburbia as the American dream of a little house with a white picket fence. Now we see it as ''sprawl'' -- as traffic-clogged commercial strips and endless, monochromatic rooftops cluttering our once pastoral open spaces.

The governor is something of a johnny-come-lately to the anti- Elise Armacost

sprawl movement, but better late than never. Happy Acres is the reason we are losing our farmland and our open spaces. The demand for more roads, new schools, police patrols and other services in these hinterlands is sapping the tax dollars and resources needed keep our old schools, roads and bridges in good working order.

Happy Acres killed the trolley in Baltimore. For that matter, it's killing Baltimore and sucking the life out of small-town downtowns all over the place. But the governor is mistaken if he thinks the public is unanimously behind him in the fight against sprawl.

So what's wrong with sprawl? asks Malcolm B. Kane, a lawyer who now lives on Gibson Island but spent many happy years in a rancher on one acre in Allview Estates near Columbia. So the ''planning gurus, local politicians and ersatz eggheads'' don't like sprawl, he wrote in a spirited letter to The Sun. ''Obviously, the only people who approve of urban sprawl are the vast majority of the citizenry who either enjoy the living space [it] makes available to them . . . or those who wish they could enjoy it. . . .

''So we have lost farmland -- big deal! Our country still produces a surplus of food at reasonable prices. . . . And we have lost timberland -- that land upon which free markets place the lowest values because no one has much use for it.''

It's time to stop making sprawl a dirty word and think about the way it improves people's quality of life, he told me last week. ''They may not be able to have five acres or 10 acres or 40 acres, but at least they can have a lawn where Mama can watch her little kids. This business of [bashing] urban sprawl tries to make us feel guilty about that.''

Their own neighborhood

I disagree with Mr. Kane, but I enjoyed his letter. It was witty, honest and made an important point: Many people like the kind of life sprawl has given them. They may not like everybody else's sprawl. But they like their own neighborhood.

Debbie Shaughney is happy in Happy Acres. And you know what she likes about it? All the things the governor and the neo-urbanists hate: the lots that devour open space, the relentless homogeneity, the cul-de-sacs and one-way-in-and-out designs that isolate and segregate people.

''I like the fact that nobody's on top of me,'' she says. ''I like to look out and see the trees. I like the fact that I'm in a court and when our kids play I don't have to worry about traffic so much, because only people who know us come in and out of there.''

The idea of being able to walk to the store appeals to her, but that's the only thing about urbanism of any ilk that does. She wouldn't even want to live in a tiny town like New Windsor. ''You can't have a private conversation in your back yard because the neighbors can hear you. There's too much congestion and a constant noise level. And in a town you can have really nice houses on one side and slums on the other side.'''

She'd leave a subdivision, she says, if she could afford more property farther out in the country.

But many suburbanites don't want the genuine country life any more than they want to live in the city. A couple of years ago a Howard County developer incorporated a smidgen of nature -- an urban wildlife sanctuary, including ponds with frogs -- in one of his projects. Residents of a nearby neighborhood hated it. They said the frogs croaked too loudly. They wanted a little space of their own, nice and quiet, not the wide open spaces.

They wanted suburbia. They wanted sprawl.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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