I got the jump on my drive to Delaware last weekend by leaving several hours before the dawn. I had the Taconic, the Sawmill, and the Palisades Parkways virtually to myself, driving beneath stars I usually associate with summer evenings but rarely am awake to see in the wee hours of Spring. The sun came up in dusty rose over the phragmites saltmarsh of East Jersey. Multiflora thickets in vernal green made a living abatis along the turnpike embankments. Over the years I have become accustomed to this part of New Jersey looking as it does. The only dramatic change in this heavily industrialized landscape is the skyline of lower Manhattan, the absence of its two towers still jarring in ways that the massive destruction of the former Meadowlands ecosystem, sadly, is not anymore.
To drive south in early Spring is to view the season in time elapse. Red maples bud and swell, pushing forth flowers as the miles tick by. Daffodils rise and bloom beneath cascades of Magnolia petals, weeping cherry boughs, brazen azaleas. South of Wilmington, Delaware, I rolled down my window and tried to catch the smell of newly furrowed earth on the wind.
Instead, my senses were assaulted by row after row of subdivisions. The transformation of the northern Delaware landscape has happened at a ferocious scale and explosive pace. It took little more than a decade for Middletown, Delaware to double in size from a town of less than 5,000 to a population well on its way to becoming a small city by 2010. The huge, new highway lying athwart old Rte 13 swerves around Odessa and disgorges traffic at the gateway to Middletown: a park 'n ride lot next to behemoth subdivisions. I immediately stalled into a 15 minute traffic jam, the only such slow down on my entire, early a.m. drive through the Mid-Atlantic megalopolis, and saw just one structure built before 1985 as I crept forward. It was an early 20th century farmhouse, wedged between a shopping center and a new High School - the source of the gridlock - where it seems there were 30 cars for every bus and the school now rents overflow parking from an adjacent Catholic church to accommodate excess student vehicles.
I bet that to some folks in Middletown, this looks like progress. The sharecropper shacks and sagging barns that used to lie out in the flats East of Town back in my day betrayed an agricultural economy on a downward slide. Some of the finest farmland soils in the country lie beneath the new development, but for many years these produced just three row crops with little diversification. The loss of farmland in turn lead to loss of market edge. Middletown has only one remaining grain elevator full of two-year-old seed that hasn't found a buyer. The handful of farmers left now must drive their corn and soy deep into Maryland.
If you were to design a model that would guarantee massive in-migration of suburbanites, unchecked development , and rapid transformation of community character, Middletown has all the key indicators. The construction of one, fast highway down the spine of the state made Philadelphia a more rapid commute from upper Delaware than from the wealthy suburbs of the Main Line less than 10 miles from Center City. The land was already level and cleared, with a deep aquifer and few zoning impediments. The farm economy was on the wane and aging farmers had few successors in the next generation. Developers like Toll Brothers, whose luxury community subdivisions are ubiquitous and sprout archetypal McMansions across much of the nation, could acquire huge amounts of ground in Delaware to reconfigure to their consumer demographic. The value of land increased so exponentially that agricultural easements, funded at just 50% of farm value, still routinely command $35,000/acre. Yet an urban buyer looking for a 1/2 acre of space and a luxury home can find one tailor-made in Delaware for a fraction of the cost in the old, moneyed communities of the inner suburbs. Meanwhile, there is no local land trust, those few conservation organizations working in Delaware have limited resources, and state and federal money for conservation has dropped precipitously in the Bush years.
The results seem obvious, now. Delaware's suburbanization and rapidly vanishing open space alarm some residents, but so many newcomers embrace the new infrastructure and do not know what they have lost, and so many of the businesses owned by local and countywide power brokers profit from the surge of building and the attendant services development requires, that little has been done to stem the tide. Middletown's 2005 Comprehensive Plan, drafted by outside consultants, has all the warning signs, but does not appear to have prompted a course correction. The aquifer will not supply enough water to meet the demands of anticipated growth by 2020. The Town could approach 35,000 residents in the next two decades. An entire suburb of Middletown called West Town, with its own High school and demand for municipal services, is slated for development "west of town". 25% of open land identified as green space is owned by my former secondary school and has no permanent protection.
I circled the perimeter of St. Andrew's School before turning into the drive. It had been many years since I last visited back in the winter of 1992 and I was early for my appointment with the headmaster. In some ways, the school seemed a tranquil oasis. It owns all but two or three tiny in-holdings surrounding Noxontown Pond, more than two miles long with banks fringed with beech and oak and farmland beyond. As I rounded Rodney Point, where there is limited public access on Sundays, I tried to guess how much of the existing farmland was either owned by the school, subject to a conservation easement, or enrolled in a 10-year agricultural abatement program. Later, consulting a land use map at the school, I saw I had hit the nail on the head every time. Anything with a field and a farm was subsidized or in St. Andrew's ownership.
The school has been in these Delaware farm fields since its founding in 1929. During the last decade it has embraced a more progressive, counter-cultural approach to education while retaining an extraordinary commitment to academic, athletic and artistic excellence. Its Gothic architecture is reminiscent of Princeton's or Bryn Mawr's, yet to contemporary students with different cultural references it has been compared to the Hogwarts of Harry Potter. I can attest to nocturnal activities while a student here that would have benefited from an invisibility cloak and Marauder's Map, and made a point of learning every nook, cranny and alcove of the enormous Founder's Hall with its original NC Wyeths and collection of antique firearms on the walls. This weekend I was gratified to see these museum pieces sharing space with student art.
St. Andrew's is blessed with an endowment that would be the envy of many small liberal arts colleges, and used some of its resources to buy adjacent lands as the came available on the leading edge of the development boom. The ability to buy land in order to save it has been a hallmark of the conservation movement since the early 20th century and has its roots in the visionary work of patrician conservationists like Maine's Governor Baxter and Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strategy that served the more than 1,200 land trusts across the country remarkably well for most of their existence. Ownership conveys a high degree of control over what can occur on a piece of land, but it does not guarantee that the land is managed for conservation outcomes, nor that it is of sufficient size and quality to withstand outside threats and pressures. For all its gorgeous setting, St. Andrews is a fragment of green in a patchwork of development. It cannot pull up a drawbridge, withdraw behind the mists, or retreat to an island like Axel Heyst, a character in Joseph Conrad's Victory, which I read while at St. Andrews, and expect to stay removed from the larger, threatening world.
Neither the school nor the surrounding community is static. Someday Rodney Point might look like a good candidate for open space acquisition via eminent domain. The divisions of Town and Gown need not remain an absolute barrier to working more closely together on smart growth and open space planning. My conversations with faculty and students at St. Andrew's last weekend explored numerous ways the School could engage with local decision makers and influence the land use choices made beyond its borders. Without some thoughtful investment in meaningful amounts of protected open space, newly suburban Middletown will become less and less desirable to higher end residents with time. The front of sprawl will pass on to the south and what remains will be a built environment with enormous taxes and declining property values.
St. Andrew's is making a significant investment in sustainability, making it a cornerstone of its educational mission and institutional culture. I got out on the lake in a crew launch equipped with a 4 stroke outboard and watched immature bald eagles perched above the water. The school has an organic garden and students who elect to grow produce for the community instead of taking a spring sport. The one piece of this picture where they can invest more thoroughly is in the overall conservation plan for the lands they hold and the way in which they use the tremendous assets they have to leverage smarter growth and conservation in the surrounding landscape.
Something still remains of rural Delaware, if you know where to look for it. I got down to Bombay Hook NWR late in the day and watched the shorebirds flying over that vast saltwater wetland. Tree frogs sang in exultant chorus and the tide vied with the wind in mid-channel. I ate crab cakes at Sambo's, a storied local institution down in Leipsic, Kent County, where there are a handful of watermen still lingering on. All that buffers these communities from what happened upstate is a 15 minute longer commute, and developers are already busy.
On the way home I stayed with a dear college friend who has been an urban pioneer for going on 15 years in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. In the early 1990's this was one of the bleakest, blighted landscapes in the city. She and her neighbors bought and created a community park on reclaimed brown-fields that has transformed their neighborhood. Because of Liberty Lands, land values have soared. Children play beneath flowering trees and parents kneel in community gardens. Something magic, and wild, and hard to define, has happened in these few blocks with new-found green. There has been gentrification, too, of a funky, urban variety, but still for now the Northern Liberties are a mixed, vibrant neighborhood with an active community association and engaged neighbors. The growth that is coming will not come unheralded, or unchallenged where it exceeds the thresholds of livability. If there is hope for conservation in the brick walk-ups of Philadelphia, there must be hope for Delaware.