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CURRENT STORIES


'Sprawl' spreads across the U.S.

In the first of three Sunday reports, today's article examines a national development trend called sprawl. This week: what's happening nationally?

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

Bulldozers and freshly graded land are becoming a common and generally welcome sight all along the I-79/Corridor H criss-cross.

But as several areas around the state and nation have already found out, what begins as a trickle can turn into a torrent.

It's called sprawl.

"Sprawl is not just development around cities," said Betsy Garside, communications director for American Farmland Trust, a non-profit conservation organization. "It's a type of land-wasting development that can happen almost anywhere."

It's already happening in West Virginia.

The Eastern Panhandle -- part of the multi-state Piedmont farm belt -- is one of two national areas where farmland is most endangered, Garside said. The other is California's Central Valley region.

"In the West, they're ranchettes. In the East, they're farmettes," Garside said of farms carved into four- and five-acre plots for urbanites' second or retirement homes. "You can eat up a lot of land with that kind of development."

Precisely, sprawl took about two million acres of American farmland per year in the late 1990s, an annual amount about twice the size of Delaware. It's also double the annual amount between 1987 and 1992.

"It's the temperate climate, the scenic land. It's flat, relatively well drained," said Garside of why farmland bears the brunt of such development.

But sprawl is so complex, she added, more than farmland is at stake. National Trust case studies indicate sprawl impacts infrastructure and public service costs, commuting time, views and air pollution.

One complexity of sprawl is it often begins as desired growth, boosting the economy with jobs and providing wanted residential areas, Garside said.

Once development passes a critical point, however, it generally means higher taxes and reduced quality of life, she added.

"In every single case, the community's fiscal situation reveals residential development costs more in services than it brings in in revenue," Garside said. "We need to balance our growth so development and open space add up to a net asset for the community coffers."

Maintaining that delicate balance is something tiny Yellow Springs, Ohio, has become a national role model in doing. Located in the commercial zone between Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus referred to as the "golden triangle," Yellow Springs has been fending off Dayton's sprawl while seeing its own retail district strengthened.

Ironically, the Chamber of Commerce is involved.

"Yellow Springs is a place a lot of people like to come to," said village Chamber Director Elizabeth Newman, a Parkersburg native. "In order to maintain that, we need to keep it small."

The village's quaint-come-quirky retail base includes such entities as a dairy, a publisher, a scuba supply shop, graphic designers, a dahlia farm, perfumeries and an African import store. There is also a state park and two nature preserves in the community of 4,000.

Given that tourism draw, village business leaders were displeased with the possibility of mini-malls and "starter castle" subdivisions heading their way along the recently developed I-675.

It was I-675 that prompted them to begin the anti-sprawl fight in the 1960s.

"A local planner estimated the impact of it," said Al Denman, a retired Antioch professor and past president of the Tecumseh Land Trust, a Yellow Springs-based land conservation organization.

"He figured by the 1980s or '90s it would be developed up to Yellow Springs. ... We were saved by about 15 or 20 years ... it wasn't built as rapidly as they thought."

How did they stop sprawl's march?

It's partly a long association with the leftward-leaning Antioch College, according to Denman.

"The idea that good small is better than good big ... has come into our bloodstreams," he said.

Also, the village heeded the planner's prophecy and developed a zoning plan that determined how and where the community desires growth.

It also developed the local land trust, to which hundreds of acres of conservation easements (perpetual development rights) have been donated by land owners who want their property to remain as is or to revert to wilderness. The land owners receive property tax credits, as well.

But, conservationists say, it wasn't until December 1998 the philosophy really kicked into action. Residents were horrified when auction signs went up on Whitehall Farm, a 940-acre property in the greater community.

"The number of homes that can be built on 900 acres, we would have had to build new schools, water and sewer and infrastructure," said Julia Cady, a farmland owner and president of the Tecumseh Land Trust. "That does not come cheap."

At first, the land trust negotiated to buy the land. When those negotiations fell through, preservationists realized they would have to back their words with cash.

"At the last minute, all of the funds were pulled together," said Amy Harper, editor of the Yellow Springs News and an anti-sprawl activist. A combination of private, township and county funds raised $1.3 million to purchase the conservation easement on the farm, whose land was purchased for farming and residence by two individuals.

"It educated the whole community, Dayton, Columbus," said Judy Hempfling, a farmer's daughter who moved to Yellow Springs four years ago. "There was a lot of interest in the region about what we did."

Winning the Whitehall battle also makes Cady think the town has a chance at the war.

"Before, development just happened," Cady said. "Now, people go to the zoning meetings."

Trust officials also visit communities interested in managing development.

"We get a lot of calls to come and tell our story and share our magic," Denman said.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.

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