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Thursday, December 17, 2015

IN VIRGINIA, SPRAWL CONQUERS ALL

My friend. colleague, and one-time client David Blake called the other day to tell me that he’s given up on Virginia. I was tempted to ask what had taken him so long; Virginia has long struck me as such a benighted state that I try to avoid crossing the Potomac. But I know something of what’s driven David to stay, and respect him for doing so. I’m sorry to see him go, and sorrier for what’s driven him out.

David has long been a major force behind the Buckland Preservation Society (http://bucklandva.net/tag/buckland-preservation-society/).  Buckland is a pretty well preserved 19th century mill village in Prince William County, on the southwest side of Broad Run. It includes the site of a substantial Civil War cavalry action. Its landscape remains one of rolling green fields and scattered woodlots, albeit bisected by the godawful U.S. 29 with its uncontrolled globs of commercial development.

But on the northeast side of Broad Run, snarling and slavering, crouches the scourge of Northern Virginia, sprawl development. A scourge that’s been enthusiastically welcomed by the state’s economic and political movers and shakers, chewing up the landscape and pooping out miles and miles of look-alike housing tracts and shopping malls and light industry “parks.” A scourge that’s been fought by a few recalcitrant organizations like the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Buckland Preservation Society, and by individuals like David.

Years ago, David and his group hired me to help them fight a proposal to widen the highway bridge across Broad Run, which – under the guise of a safety improvement – would have opened the village and battlefield to accelerated development. We won that one, in the process helping the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to take a pretty enlightened posture on the cumulative effects of transportation projects – to which, sadly the Federal Highway Administration continues to turn an eye that is at best myopic. And like the cavalries of the Late Unpleasantness, the Society fought a series of running fights thereafter. Winning some, losing some, and meanwhile buying up property in the village and battlefield and slapping preservation easements on it.

But despite winning some battles, David explained, he’s concluded that preservation has lost the war. Or maybe that’s saying too much, since David is actually beating a strategic retreat to South Carolina, where he’s already preparing for new struggles. But for Northern Virginia he’s lost hope; the stormtroopers of sprawl have proved too powerful, their strategists too clever. Since federal preservation and environmental laws have proved troublesome, the sprawlers and their legislative lackeys have found ways around them – ways to build pretty much anything without enough obvious federal involvement to bring NEPA and Section 106 into play, or to render them impotent if they are invoked. So, David has had enough, and is withdrawing to what he – and I – hope will be more defensible positions in South Carolina.

The Buckland Preservation Society has had lots of valued support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Battlefield Preservation Program; I imagine that they, like I, will be sorry to see David go. There are probably people at the ACHP who’ll miss him, too – pain-in-the-backside as he often has been to them. But I imagine that they, like I, will understand all too well what has driven him south, and like me wish him well in his new environment.

I’m sorry for Buckland, but its fate reinforces my belief that it’s wise to stay north of the river. 

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