If Chrissie Hynde had lived in Delaware instead of Akron, Ohio, she could have written My City Was Gone about almost anywhere in the formerly rural Diamond State. The same goes for much of the eastern seaboard within the I-95 Richmond-to-Portland Megalopolis. Urban sprawl has a way of metastasizing with widespread impacts. It behaves as does wildfire, preheating adjacent fuels until they reach ignition, so that the flaming front of urban sprawl draws an ever expanding ring of exurban land into the furnace.
Just as insidious as its urban counterpart, rural sprawl threatens small towns and communities across the American homeland. Here in the Litchfield Hills, localities closer to Fairfield and New Haven Counties are well on their way toward suburbanization as development expands up the Rtes 7 and 8 corridors. Patterns of rural sprawl can take the form of commercial development branching out from town and village centers, but it more commonly occurs as diffuse and widespread patterns of low density residential development scattered across the landscape.
In nearby Massachusetts during the past decade, the number of forest land owners has doubled. At the same time, land in forest cover dipped from 70% to around 68%. The inescapable conclusion is that larger forest parcels have been fragmented into smaller ones. The same is true for agricultural lands, but these are more likely to convert to uses other than farming when they divide.
The rural sprawl that we experience in the Litchfield Hills has generally not come in the form of high-density subdivisions. Instead, parcels of 5-50 acres in size are carved out of larger land holdings a few at a time across the landscape. With the unprecedented rise in real estate values in this area, properties that were thought to be unattractive for development only a few years ago are now highly marketable. Some of this land goes to large estates, but some is subdivided into multiple, building lots. With each year, the rural character of the Litchfield Hills is steadily eroded.
Land managers and ecologists are accustomed to predictive modeling, so I shall try to amplify my earlier wildfire analogy to describe the patterns of rural sprawl, and suggest ways to anticipate its manifestations in the future in the Litchfield Hills. I'm an old prescribed fire hand, used to fuel models, flamelengths, and calculating rates of spread, so at the risk of conjuring the shade of Ross Perot, "let me break it down for you."
Sprawl in the Litchfield Hills behaves like a creeping ground fire. The wind is from the south - always from the urban south - but there are local and variable breezes present as well, influenced by topography. The flame front is the Interstate 84 corridor in Fairfield County, and head fires are advancing through New Milford toward Kent and on both sides of Rte 8. up the valley of the Naugatuck. There may be another, smaller conflagration to the East, but whereas Rte 8 is a conduit for southern sprawl, it is more akin to a hard firebreak discouraging the westward expansion of Hartford's bedroom communities.
If that were all that were in play, then the only thing for rural planners and conservationists to do would be to lay down a scratch line in front of the advancing flames and fight a holding action against the sprawl, all the while praying that the wind speed does not increase or fires outflank the line. A frontal assault on a wildfire is a doubtful proposition in the best of circumstances, but another significant factor makes such a strategy an utterly futile response to rural sprawl. When conditions are favorable, flaming firebrands carried on the wind ahead of the wildfire will start spot fires on the landscape. This is precisely the pattern of low density rural development that one typically sees with rural sprawl.
Spotting happens when atmospheric conditions and the availability of fuels combine to greatly increase the likelihood of ignition from windblown embers. Rural sprawl happens when economic, legal and social conditions in a locality experiencing growth make it more receptive to this kind of development pattern. Real estate values, commuting patterns, zoning restrictions or the lack thereof, and the degree of a community's commitment to preserving its rural character are key factors that influence how a town will develop. It should be possible, just as we model fire behavior under varying conditions, to do the same for rural sprawl and predict those areas that are most vulnerable to this phenomenon.
The antidote to spot fires on the landscape, as with invasive species, is early detection and rapid response. Knowing where the fires are likely to ignite is vital for this process. The Litchfield Hills Greenprint should be able to do something similar to focus attention on those areas ahead of the flames that are most vulnerable to rural sprawl and where it will be most critical to make the conditions less receptive to it. Some of those areas may not have the most significant ecological resources, but maintaining their rural character will be critical to ensuring the viability of surrounding communities and the landscape that sustains them.