This is a tale of two countrysides, a tale with many implications for the lands and waters of the Chesapeake. And it is an appropriate tale for this time of year, when the holidays bring forth a nostalgia emanating from our agrarian roots. Sure, there are images of the Macy's Parade and city sidewalks and Dickensian London surrounding the season, but our strongest feelings are associated with the countryside at this time of year — “over the river and through the woods,” heading out through the fields to find the Christmas tree, the smells of baking rolling out of the farmhouse kitchen, to name just a few. Our ideal world at this time of the year becomes a world of rolling hills and stream valleys, farms and villages, set in what the Russians call the golden autumn, after the leaves have fallen, or covered by the first snows of winter. And you don't have to go far to find such places near the Chesapeake. They still exist in much of the Virginia Piedmont, western Maryland, and the stream valleys that lead to the Susquehanna.
This takes me back to the tale of two countrysides, because the way we deal with development in the Bay watershed in coming decades will decide whether these places all become just memories. In recent years, I've had the occasion to do a lot of driving through the New England countryside, which has the reputation of offering some of the most consistently pleasurable in America. I've particularly noticed the contrasts of driving through New Hampshire and Vermont. From the map, they appear like twins, sitting on top of Massachusetts and separated by the Connecticut River. But the more you get to know them, the more the differences emerge, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the way they have treated the countryside. Both states have a rich legacy of natural and manmade beauty; if anything, the New Hampshire mountains are a little higher, the houses seem a little sturdier, the church steeples on the green a little higher. New Hampshire is the Land of Laissez-Faire, where the state has little say or interest in what happens to the landscape, and local government is in charge. In general, where development pressures have been few this has worked well, and much of the more remote parts of the state remain attractive.
But southern New Hampshire has been developing at a fast pace, and the results are a tragedy to behold. Because there are essentially no controls against it, the land along the roads there has been allowed to develop into seemingly endless strips of auto repair shops, nurseries, mini-markets, hairdressers, and anything else that wants to set up. Aside from the visual effects of this approach to development on the landscape, it has perverse economic effects. Commercial sectors of the old towns and villages seem run-down and worn out, and traffic along the main roads between towns is slowed to a frustrating pace by the constant turning of vehicles on and off the road. The answer when things get too bad is to widen the road, thus removing whatever remnants of natural beauty might have survived the onslaught. What used to be the experience of being in the countryside is replaced by the occasional view into the distance in search of the countryside.
Across the river from all this is Vermont, the Land of Quiet Resolve. Here the state and the local governments have worked out a sharing of the responsibilities for development. While relations between levels of government are occasionally strained, the underlying values are shared — to protect the things that Vermonters value and that bring others into the state — and preserving the countryside is high on the list.
The results are a startling contrast with New Hampshire. When you leave the town centers in Vermont you know it. The countryside opens up, and you become part of it. The road ahead is uncluttered because the slow-moving traffic is in the village centers, where it belongs. So you have time to enjoy the vistas even though you are going at highway speeds. Economic vitality has stayed in the town centers, because that's where the services and stores are located. If things get too congested, a bypass is built, but curb-cuts on the bypass are strictly controlled so it can continue to serve its purpose.
Of course, there are exceptions and mistakes, even in a place like Vermont; it was the mistakes that led to the new way of doing business. Some have said that the real difference with southern New Hampshire is the far lower level of development pressure in Vermont. That may be a factor, but Vermont's system has held up pretty well in the face of major investments at ski resorts (at Killington, they simply moved it way back off the main roads and kept it back there) and in tourist centers like Manchester, where outlet stores threatened to consume the highways.
The lesson here for the Chesapeake is that we have some choices to make. We have many areas that are developing like southern New Hampshire, where every time you drive down the road there are a few more traffic lights, a few more businesses scattered along the disappearing rural stretches, a few more curb cuts for more to come. Think about your last trip down route 2 or 4 below Annapolis, or up route 13 or 17 in Virginia, or above Harrisburg on routes 11 or 15. Things ain't gettin' any better, folks.
We need to find the resolve. The answer is not more state authority or more home rule; it has to be a cooperative effort with state and local governments working together with citizens, developers and conservationists all to save the countryside. The answer begins by realizing that, given the development pressures we're under in large parts of the watershed, we can't have a Vermont result with a New Hampshire approach. The lesson is there for anyone who wants to go up there and look at it.