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News ::
They paved Pennsylvania, put up a parking lot (english)
17 Oct 2003
Pennsylvania's slow population growth ranks it 48th in the nation, yet only four other states in the lost more open space to development.
It is too common an error, to invert the Order of Things by making
an end of that which is a means, and a means of that which is an end...

Thus men seek wealth rather than subsistence, and the end of
clothes is the least reason of their use. Nor is satisfying our appetite
our end in eating, so much as the pleasing of our pallate. The like
may also be said of building, furniture, etc. where man rules not beast,
and appetite submits not to reason.

--William Penn, Founder of Pennsylvania (Forests of Penn), 1682

Mike Weilbacher, Main Line Times, October 17, 2003

Sprawl, of course, is not just a Montgomery County issue. In the five southeastern Pennsylvania counties, urbanized land grew by 81 percent in just the 10 years between 1980 and 1990 -- almost doubling the amount of land we occupy. Yet Pennsylvania's population only grew by 3.4 percent in that same decade, ranking us 48th in the entire country for population growth. Unlike Colorado, say, or New Mexico, Pennsylvania's population is not growing. Rather, it is sprawling into the suburbs, over farms and forests. Yet even with our tepid population growth, only four other states in the entire country lost more open space to development.

Every year, another 110,000 acres of Pennsylvania vanishes beneath tract housing and strip mall. In 1982, Pennsylvania was losing 100 acres per day; today, that number is estimated to be more than 350 acres. Daily.

This year, voters have the opportunity to approve a monumental $150 million county open space bond referendum, wherein Montgomery County, PA seeks your permission to spend a delicious sum of money on permanently protecting and preserving open space and farmland across the county. By the numbers:

The county launched a $100 million open space program in 1993, with a goal of spending $10 million annually for a full decade. As that program is set to expire, the county reports that more than 9,200 acres of open space, farmland and parkland have been preserved and nearly $2 million worth of trees. That's the good news.

In that same period, however, more than 40,000 acres of Montgomery County have been bulldozed by the sprawl juggernaut. Sadly, for every one acre the county has set aside, four additional acres have been developed. Sprawl outpaces preservation by a ratio of 4 to 1, and in the state as a whole, the ratio is 3:1-- three acres lost for every one set aside. Almost 2,200 acres of county land have been lost to development every year since 1995. Worse, since 1950, the county has lost 75 percent of its farmland -- more than 2,300 family farms. And in the 20 years between 1979 and 1999, the county's traffic increased 129 percent , and is expected to increase another 50-70 percent in the next 25 years. Between now and 2025, projections indicate another 55,000 new homes are expected in the county.

There is a massive "green gap" in Pennsylvania, a gap between the amount of land set aside and the amount of land developed. The state's impressive conservation community has joined all levels of government in a race for space to close the green gap. But it will take a lot of work. And money.

Yes, the bond issue will cost residents -- I can't pretend otherwise. But the per-taxpayer estimates are remarkably low, hovering in the neighborhood of one night of Chinese take-out for the family. And I can't think of anything I'd rather want government to do with tax dollars than continue protecting Penn's woods.

In the 1800s, Penn's woods was clearcut from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in an unparalleled frenzy of deforestation that virtually wiped out old growth forest across the state. Over time, however, nature healed from this episode in our history, and forests began returning. However, sprawl irreparably transforms the landscape: once the land is paved over, the wetlands filled in, the subdivisions installed, the land cannot grow back. It's like Will Rogers used to remind us, "They're not making land anymore."

Once it's gone, it's gone forever.

Happily, the bond issue is fully bipartisan, maybe even nonpartisan -- the sole voice crying in what little wilderness is left to urge defeat of the bond issue is the Libertarian party (which holds quirky and dismissive views on environmental preservation). The window of opportunity for protecting open space in is closing and, county funding should give us the resources we need to protect some critical open spaces, perhaps even Lower Merion's very last park.

The very last park: That's a sobering thought.

Mike Weilbacher is executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy.
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