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Citizens can preserve past, shape community of future

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Wednesday, April 13, 2005

By Thomas Hylton

Despite Rochester's extensive revitalization efforts and Mayor William Johnson's preachments against sprawl, people and jobs are still flowing from the urban core to the rural fringe.

Continued suburban development may be inevitable, but the form it takes is not. Growth doesn't have to be a hodgepodge of strip malls, housing subdivisions and corporate centers.

With proper guidance, it can evolve into communities with a sense of place, beauty and distinction.

Last weekend, residents of Williamson, just beyond Rochester's metropolitan fringe in Wayne County, began an exercise in shaping their town's destiny. With just 7,000 people living on 34 square miles, Williamson still enjoys scenic agricultural vistas and historic villages. But the town realizes it won't retain those assets much longer unless it develops a new master plan and the zoning to carry it out.

With the help of the nonprofit Rochester Regional Community Design Center, nearly 100 people gathered at a local church to shape a vision for growth that will enhance Williamson as well as the hamlets, East Williamson and Pultneyville, that are part of the town.

As keynote speaker, I suggested two of America's best examples for enhancing towns and preserving countryside. To save farmland, we can look to Lancaster County, Pa., the home of the state's Amish and Mennonite farming community. With the county's guidance, most of Lancaster's rural municipalities have enacted agricultural zoning, which is defined as no more than one housing unit for each 20 acres of contiguous land. Overall, more than a third of the county's total land area is zoned exclusively for agriculture. Meanwhile, the county has been purchasing conservation easements for 20 years, and 600 farms covering 55,000 acres have been permanently preserved.

To build cohesive communities, we can learn from Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius, three adjacent North Carolina villages growing rapidly as people and jobs migrate north from Charlotte. Using official maps and mandatory set-asides for open space, the villages are shaping new development into the form of a traditional town. Houses, stores and offices are interconnected with an evolving street system and pedestrian greenways. Scenic vistas are being preserved. Design guidelines ensure new buildings will complement their surroundings.

At the Williamson forum, residents discussed a plan to concentrate new housing and retail development around the historic village of Williamson. Building lots would be varied in size, but small enough to create the density needed for walking. People felt a preservation ordinance was needed to protect historic buildings. And they wanted design guidelines to ensure new construction is compatible with the existing town.

Within a month, the Regional Design Center will return with specific recommendations based on the ideas generated at the forum. Eventually, through a series of meetings, a new land-use ordinance will be adopted.

Suburban development doesn't have to be sprawl. It can be lovely, distinctive and neighborly, if we work creatively and diligently to make it so. Perhaps Williamson can help lead the way.






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