Lancaster tries to save its farms and way of life 1,000 acres of farmland have vanished in last three years


LANCASTER, Pa. -- Old Order Amish families hold church services in their homes. They rarely invite outsiders to attend. But you can't drive more than a mile through Lancaster County's rolling farmland without thinking you've already entered one of the world's great sacred spaces, a landscape consecrated over the centuries to a peaceful way of life.

If this view is no more than a day-tripper's idle projection, it is not alien to a place that was settled in the 17th century in William Penn's spirit of religious tolerance.

But the sanctuary is getting smaller, thanks in part to the car that conveys visitors into a part of the world that retained its serenity until the postwar years. In the last three years, more than 1,000 acres of farmland in Lancaster County have vanished.

The car culture has gulped down big chunks of a landscape long associated with the horse-drawn carriage. Open land has been turned into sites for suburban subdivisions, big-box discount outlets and strip malls.

Joining Hagia Sofia

This is a story that has been repeated in urban and rural sites across America since the end of World War II. In response to the pressures of suburban development, last year Lancaster County was placed on the World Monument Fund's annual list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Dairy cows and corn and tobacco fields thus took their place with the domes of Hagia Sofia, the temple sculptures of Angkor Wat.

This is the first time the Monuments Fund has explicitly designated a way of life, not just a building or historic district, and it makes for a challenging problem.

Action plans for endangered sites typically call for work like restoring decaying mosaics, erecting a new roof or building a new road to divert trucks. For Lancaster County, the action plan is pitched well above the material plane. It acknowledges that Pennsylvania and Lancaster County already have some of the best land-use plans in the country.

But quoting the anthropologist John A. Hostetler, the plan advises: "Nothing except a catastrophic intervention or spiritual reversal can restrain the corrosive greed which spawns affluence and insatiable growth. The key to preserving Lancaster lies in a return to the very ideals that created it."

Randy Harris and Karen Weiss are local leaders in this preservation effort.

Harris, executive director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster, has worked mainly to preserve buildings in the city of Lancaster, the county's historic urban core. (This is the first time an entire American city has been on the Monuments Fund's list, too.)

Weiss, land preservation director of the Lancaster Farmland Trust, has worked tirelessly to convince farmers to accept property easements, a deed restriction that, in exchange for payment by donors, limits the use of their land to agricultural purposes. The easements secured by the Farmland Trust in the past 10 years have not quite kept pace with the forces of commercial development, yet they represent far more than a respectable show of resistance.

Once on frontier

Lancaster used to be a frontier town. This is where pioneers purchased their Conestoga wagons and filled them with provisions before heading west. Later, it was the site of F.W. Woolworth's first five- and-ten. Today, it has many beautifully restored old buildings, including an opera house, several former market halls and the Hamilton Watch factory, now converted to apartments.

The city's most recent preservation success is the scheduled renovation of the old Watt & Shand building, an old department store on Penn Square, an iconically grand civic center in the heart of town.

The store closed shortly after its owners opened a branch as the anchor tenant in a shopping mall on the city's outskirts. In addition to restoring the four-story building, the plan calls for a mixed-use office and retail tenants.

What can never be restored is the simple binary relationship between town and country - distinct but mutually supportive - that Weiss and Harris themselves personify. Much of Lancaster County has been irretrievably splintered into what Peter Rowe calls the "middle landscape," the car culture's decentralized realm. This fragmentation lies beyond the repair of any action plan.

Still, there is another binary concept that might prove useful in managing change: the cultural and economic shift from production to consumption that is driving the transformation of urban and rural environments nationwide.

J.B. Jackson, the landscape writer, once wrote that he didn't favor historical preservation on what he called the "small town, middle-class scale."

Would he have made an exception for the Amish? They don't look like the middle-class people you see at the shopping mall just outside downtown Lancaster. They're not big consumers. They're producers. This marks them off from us as much as their religious belief.

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