mardi, mai 16, 2006

Outside the suburbs

I feel like I'm cheating a little bit by posting something that has appeared in print, but it's been very hectic recently, and after all, I did write this! It appeared in today's Inquirer, and is a meditation on the pleasures and challenges of community life in Wallace Township. If you have anything to share about the joys of living in your city or town or rural area, please post so we all can enjoy it.
On a recent morning, as the light of a spring dawn was banishing the darkness from my home in Wallace Township, I sat bolt upright in bed. What was that ungodly smell? It didn't take but a moment to figure out that the odor invading the sanctity of my bedroom was that of our friendly neighborhood skunk. Or perhaps a clan of skunks.
I can't complain too much. It was, in part, to experience the tamed wildness of exurban skunks, deer, rabbits and forest-dwelling birds that I chose to move here, 40 miles from Philadelphia. Once home to forge and mill workers, Wallace still abounds in Victorian homes, paths that meander along the East Branch of the Brandywine River, and winding lanes that attract bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Truth to tell, I fell in love with Wallace Township long before we moved here. As I ran the rocky trails of Marsh Creek State Park and exchanged chitchat with the fishermen who throng the banks of Marsh Creek Lake throughout the warm months, I found a rejuvenating sense of serenity and perspective. A casual visitor could believe that the residents had been successful in stopping time.
It wasn't more than a few months after I arrived in late August that I realized that the truth was much more complex. An open-space referendum on the ballot in November provoked fierce debate among township residents, reviving old wounds, creating unpredictable dividing lines, and nurturing enough intrigue to make a wonderful political thriller. Although labels mean little in local politics, it is significant that, for the first time in many years, the Democratic minority was emboldened to support a candidate for township supervisor (she lost but made a decent showing).
To find out more about ongoing conservation efforts from a nonpartisan perspective, I turned to Bitten Krentel, president of The Wallace Trust, a nonprofit that assists local landowners in obtaining conversion easements and serves as a sounding board for local open- space planning.
Surrounded by soaring trees, the Krentels live on a 23-acre tract of land in a house they built to order as a retirement refuge. When the branches are bare in winter, the Krentels can just glimpse her childhood home and later married residence, the 18th-century farmhouse renovated by her Danish-born parents and called Lisalund.
A slender, friendly woman in her late 70s, Krentel radiates restrained passion. In the course of the more than two hours I spent with her and her amiable husband, Bob, she spun two tales. One was a brew (and brew is the right word) of local history, replete with moonshiners, gangsters and country farms owned by swells like the Wanamaker and Montgomery families.
The other story, equally fascinating, was that of a citizen task force that crafted a zoning ordinance during the 1990s that required preservation of a significant tract of open space along with development, making Wallace one of a few Pennsylvania townships to adopt an ordinance of that type.
It had only been in the previous decade, when developers began taking a serious look at Wallace Township, that local preservationists realized the township needed to reform its zoning policies, Krentel said. Given that every township has a legal obligation to provide areas for developers to build high-density housing and to allow for commercial and industrial use, some felt that township residents were open to a legal challenge from aspiring developers.
The township joined forces with the Natural Lands Trust to construct the new model for open-space zoning, Krentel said. Based on a menu of options, the plan allows for development while maintaining 50 to 60 percent of a subdivision as open space.
This innovative method of zoning, already used in smaller Wallace developments, will be tested on a large scale over the next two or three years as construction begins on a 600-acre Hankin Group development that may include close to 700 homes.
"All of us want to preserve some vestige of what we knew in the old days," Krentel said. "We are not going to have it all."
As I ran the lakeside trail after our conversation, I reflected on how ephemeral, and yet how powerful, the past can be.
Dammed up to control floods on the Brandywine Creek in the early 1970s, the Marsh Creek Lake waters cover the old farming community of Milford Mills. Present only in the memory, the vanished houses and fields serve both as sobering reminder of the inexorable march of time and as an inspiration to preserve the character, if not every relic, of a way of life worth celebrating.

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