Residents must do more to save Berks farmland
Monday, March 29, 1999
By Thomas Hylton
The decision of the Berks County commissioners to spend or leverage about $50 million to preserve farmland over the next five years shows vision and leadership. At current prices, the commissioners hope to save about 200 farms comprising 25,000 acres of farmland, which is well worth the money.
But saving Berks County´s farmland will require more than buying development rights. It will also require changing the middle class dream from a one-acre lot in the "countryside" to a dream of living in a close-knit neighborhood where people can walk some of the places they need to go.
Since 1989, the state and Berks County have spent $23 million to save about 12,000 acres of Berks County farmland by purchasing development rights. That amounts to just 5 per cent of the county´s total farmland. And during that same time period, the county lost better than 13,000 acres of other farms.
Pennsylvania has the second largest farmland preservation program in the nation, but after ten years and $240 million spent, the program has saved less than 2 per cent of the state´s farmland.
Even if Berks County does succeed in saving 25,000 more acres of farmland during the next five years, as the commissioners hope, that still amounts to only 15% of the county´s current farmland.
Large lot development, and the huge quantities of asphalt that must be poured to support the car-dominated lifestyle it requires, will consume Berks County farmland much faster than the county can ever hope to save it by purchasing development rights.
Fundamentally, a change in development patterns is essential to preserve rural Berks.
Last year, the city of Reading celebrated its 250th anniversary. For the first 200 years of Berks history, the pattern of development was a thriving central city surrounded by small satellite towns such as Birdsboro, Kutztown and Hamburg, with miles of pristine farms and woodlands in between. Most people lived in towns, where they took up very little space because homes, stores, and workplaces were built in close proximity.
Growing up in Wyomissing and Reading in the 1950s and early 60s, I walked to school and my friend´s houses, and my mother walked to work. Like many other families, we had one car which we used modestly.
But during the last 50 years, we have abandoned that lifestyle. Most middle class people now live on isolated lots or subdivisions scattered willy-nilly over Berks County hills and valleys. Every trip, even a small errand for a quart of milk, requires driving the car.
That´s how we have turned many Berks County landscapes into junkscapes -- we´ve strung out most of our stores, offices, and schools along our highways, for easy access by car, and placed an ample parking lot in front of every one. Even with modest population growth, we´re forced to continually build new roads and more parking lots.
From 1960 to 1990, the Reading metropolitan area grew 13 percent in population but consumed 81 percent more land to do it. This pattern is destined to continue, unless we start living in towns once again.
Would Berks residents be willing to trade huge lots for the ability to walk and enjoy a sense of community? In Florida, people are flocking to live in Disney´s new town of Celebration (eventual population: 20,000) where people can walk to the grocery store and kids can walk to a K-12 public school. The largest lot size in Celebration, with a $1 million home, is a quarter of an acre. Celebration is one of 200 traditional, town-like developments being planned or constructed across America. That´s up from just four in 1992.
Berks County doesn´t need new towns. Instead, it needs to rediscover and rebuild the towns it already has.
In his first administration, Gov. Ridge helped that cause by signing the Land Recycling Act, which makes it easier to reuse abandoned industrial lands for new development.
In January, Ridge unveiled a "Growing Greener" initiative to redirect $1.3 billion in state funds over the next five years to encourage the preservation of open space and to discourage sprawl. It´s a promising step toward coaxing local governments to work cooperatively to create a sustainable development strategy.
Vitally important is new state legislation, similar to that introduced last month by Rep. David Steil, R-Bucks, that would authorize counties to define "smart growth" areas adjacent to existing towns where development makes the most sense. The law should provide that once those areas are defined by the county, local municipalities must amend their zoning to be consistent with the county plan. In return, townships would be freed from the current requirement to zone for every land use. States like Maryland, Oregon, and Tennessee have adopted such policies.
The Berks County commissioners´ latest commitment to save farmland is inspiring. But more must be done to preserve the county´s agricultural heritage. I urge residents to contact their legislators to support "Growing Greener" and reforms to state planning and zoning laws.