Conservation, growth need to meld


BIRDSNEST, Va. -- Turning off the old Seaside Road, where a new road called Thoreau Drive has been bulldozed back into the pine forest, you have to love the sheer brass of the developer, whose sign proclaims:

WALDEN -- A Voice of Independence In The Wilderness/Affordable Homesites Pond Frontage

Such affronts to nature and literature are blessedly still the exception along Virginia's Eastern Shore, where the shrimp-shaped Delmarva Peninsula skinnies down to its tail through Accomack and Northampton counties.

It seemed a fitting place to visit during a local celebration of the 23rd anniversary of Earth Day last week. Except for ugly %J stretches of U.S. 13, Virginia's portion of the peninsula offers a 30-year trip back in time, to what the Maryland Shore looked like then.

Narrow, meandering roadways, overarched by big oaks here and there, pass through little settlements with their barber shops, wooden gas stations, family stores and nonfranchise restaurants, and wander down to landings and fishing villages.

The land has been largely retained in big holdings, creating pleasing textures of farm and forest -- all sandwiched deliciously between bay and ocean marshs capes that roll out to the horizons like prairies.

With wetlands and marsh covering two-thirds of the region's 450,000 acres and development occupying less than 4 percent, the Virginia Shore sounds like an environmentalist's dream. But poverty is pervasive, particularly in Northampton County. You pass pocket after pocket of shack communities; in one spot, nearly a hundred homes still have outhouses.

And this is the rub: In so many rural areas, economic stagnation is tacitly endorsed by some environmentalists because it helps preserve natural beauty. But the movement cannot ignore hungry children and decaying communities. Perhaps it is better to be poor amid the beauty of the Eastern Shore than amid urban blight, but somehow I doubt that theory would impress the rural poor.

The root of our dilemma, the obstacle to finding a middle ground, lies in our ineptitude at stimulating the economy without devastating natural resources.

A leading hope these days comes from a growing discipline called ecological economics, for which there is an international society of more than 1,300 economists and environmental scientists that is headquartered on Chesapeake Bay at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.

For too long we have confused economic development, which uses natural resources on a sustainable basis, with economic growth, which often comes at the expense of environmental degradation, say the ecological economists.

Remarkably, Northampton County last year came to much the same conclusion on its own; a group of 100 citizens -- planners, farmers, business people, environmentalists and watermen -- put together a blueprint for the future. It pledges that the county "will be known as a place that discovered how to progress without losing its roots." Moreover, Northampton will "earn a national reputation by successfully nurturing growth without destroying its environmental assets."

Similar sentiments are heard in other counties of the bay region; but usually not until decades of conventional growth have trashed large portions of the county and altered forever its character.

The Northampton blueprint is no utopian, pie-in-the-sky document. It would build a future on: expanding tourism, agriculture and aquaculture; attracting low-polluting industries; capitalizing on retirees' desire for a clean and safe environment; and taking advantage of a new state park and a recently opened National Wildlife Refuge.

If you listen to the ecological economists, this is the way to a healthy economy that also sustains the planet's natural resources. But in practice, no one knows how to do it. "All the things that roll so easily off your tongue are not the reality on the front lines," says Paul Berge, a regional planner who has worked on Virginia's Eastern Shore since 1979. Some tough issues:

* What about the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, whose $20 round-trip toll almost precludes commuting from Northampton County across the bay's mouth to Norfolk and Virginia Beach?

Tolls could come off soon, as the facility's bonds are paid off; or there may be additional construction, which would ensure continued tolls.

A Northampton advocate for poor people has called for an end to tolls. That definitely would stimulate the county's economy -- and convert much of it into a bedroom for urban Tidewater Virginia. There is little support so far for a toll-free passage.

* Many small towns desperately need sewage treatment, which would solve health problems and attract development. But local acceptance of good land-use planning, or even zoning, is so spotty that the sewer could unleash a development genie.

* A new state prison has been proposed, a major source of jobs in a job-poor county; but community opposition is growing. Other proposals already rejected: a medical waste incinerator and a plant to cleanse contaminated soils.

* The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental group, owns thousands of acres of pristine Atlantic beaches and waterfront farms along 50 miles of the Virginia Shore.

The group advocates just the sort of "sustainable development" endorsed by the Northampton blueprint. But many conservancy members would object to any loosening of restrictions on its holdings.

Even tourism can be overdone, says John Hall, the conservancy's manager here. He points out that Pennsylvania's Lancaster County has capitalized on its Amish way of life to the point that tourists are driving the Amish away. Locally, others point out, the Accomack County town of Chincoteague seems hellbent on turning its attractions into a tacky, overbuilt mess.

Meanwhile, the standoff here continues, with sluggish development seeming better to many than a boom economy. Ultimately, that is not only unjust, it is doomed. Out of economic desperation are spawned the worst and most shortsighted development policies.

On the 23rd anniversary of Earth Day, one congratulates Northampton County for daring to aim high, and wishes them the best. But have no illusion: We are a long way from realizing the dream of sustainable development.

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