Monday, April 04, 2005

Managing Growth In The Ex-ex-urbs

Today's Post has an informative article about the tribulations of the town of Scrabble, West Virginia as it deals with the arrival of the Washington, DC suburbs. The story is fairly straightforward: aware that a farm just outside the village was going up for auction and likely to become a housing tract, a group of local residents tried to raise the money to buy it. What's interesting is that the group intended not to create a conservation easement or keep the land in agriculture, but to build the housing their way, presumably to preserve that character of the town. In this case they ran out of time and money, and the parcel is now under contract, likely to a developer.

I think this is a scenario where planners can usefully step in and facilitate an understanding between local stakeholders and development interests. Unlike suburbs with their mostly transient population, rural towns usually have a strong sense of place--residents are already sympathetic to the idea of redeveloping their downtowns at the outset, skipping the phase where a secondary car-based strip springs up out near the bypass. The developers are in the business of logistics, using a set of standardized templates and processes to get each project built quickly, since time is money. Those aren't diametrically opposed goals, and there should be a lot of opportunities for the two groups to work together to their mutual benefit. The alternative is the canonical us-vs-them mentality:
Newcomers -- the potters who work in the antebellum broom shop in Scrabble, the Beltway professionals buying up Victorian houses in Harpers Ferry -- want flora and farms to stay.

But as farmers here say, their land is their 401(k).