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Archive for March, 2009

Come spring Robert Murphy is putting in a duck pond.  Over the last few years he’s cleared nine of his 75 acres.  He’s pulled rocks and filled gullies, smoothing the rough edges of a long departed glacier’s hastily abandoned project.

 

In this bucolic clearing he built a house and seeded the fields with winter wheat.  The dairy farmer down the road hays it for him.  With the addition of the pond, he says, “It will look like it did 50 years ago.  It will be beautiful.”

 

Robert has lived his entire life in this area of southern Maine.  He’s staked deep emotional claims to nearby lands that he’s hunted on since he was a child.  His anger flares when he tells how one by one these parcels are sold to strangers who choose to post their land “no hunting.”  This is his community, his heritage.

 

Fair enough.  

 

But in his other life, Robert is a real estate developer, merrily and aggressively selling sprawl to the north-flowing tide of folk who covet ducks and the illusion of living in the past.  When newcomers arrive in town, Robert finds them their own ponds, stonewalls and century old apple trees.

 

Until very recently, the demand for land and new houses in this area was ferocious.  Farms, fields and forests vanished at an astounding rate, rural populations leaped, and new subdivisions popped up like fall mushrooms on back roads.

 

Some of Robert’s neighbors began to worry about the changes.  They brought forth proposals aiming to preserve the rural character of their town.  They suggested, for example, denser development in some areas, land conservation in others.  

 

Robert Murphy fought every proposal.  “I think it’s just wrong to build on half acre lots,” he says.  “You go out in the backyard and where’s your quality of life?  Where’s your privacy?”  

 

I first met Robert because of an assignment for a class I was taking on town planning.  Our professor asked us to interview someone with whom we disagreed deeply on an important issue – and to scratch out some common ground.  The project was called an “Empathy Walk.”  

 

We were to work on this project with another classmate.  My partner knew immediately that he wanted to interview Robert Murphy, who had recently been written up in the newspaper for his fierce and vocal opposition to any restrictions on development.  In the newspaper column Robert appeared to be in favor of paving over the state, along with every duckling that got in his way.

 

When we met Robert in his office, he didn’t want to talk about development.  He wanted to talk about the pond and about hunting, about winter wheat, farmers, and his good stewardship of his land.  He leaned forward; his eyes glowed.  We gently drove the conversation from the fields and onto the pavement.  This was clearly not a man who wanted to live in a mall-infested suburb.

 

But, at the same time, Robert did not believe in restricting the types of development that were clearly undermining everything he valued about his hometown.  Two to five acre lots (the kind he sold the most of) checkering his green fairy hills would surely result in nowhere to hunt and no farmers down the road.  It would mean less peace, less privacy, and more pollution.

 

He told us, and we understood his point, that it’s unfair to prevent people from developing their land when they have paid their property taxes year after year, and when they have hung their futures on their ability to cash in on their land.

 

My classmate and I wondered aloud about more development bringing more traffic.  “Build more roads,” he replied.  “Is that good?”  He shrugged.  We pushed.  We asked him what he would ideally like to see happen in southern Maine.  He was puzzled by the question, even after we rephrased it again and again.  

 

We asked him what he thought was going to happen.  Continued development.  We asked what he thought about that.  “It’s inevitable,” he said, “some day southern Maine will be like suburban Boston.”

 

But he seemed unable to tell us how he  felt about this prospect.  The question simply didn’t make sense to him.  What, after all, is the point of quibbling with fate?  The solid reality of the new timber frames blotted out the watercolor wash of any other possibilities.  It was at heart, a failure of the imagination.  How can you work for something you can’t envision?

 

Finally, we asked Robert what he would do if he had a magic powder which, when dumped in the Saco River, would halt development in his town.  He didn’t answer.  Twenty minutes later, in the midst of explaining why we shouldn’t feel sorry for people who can’t afford rising property taxes (you see, their houses are worth more-they should just sell them), he suddenly fell silent.  Then he said quietly, “If I had that powder, I would dump it in.”

 

And there it was: the elusive common ground.  Of course, we didn’t all sit back and agree that development should halt in southern Maine; in fact, not one of us thought anything of the sort.  It was, rather, a recognition that we all three aspired to something better than what was actually happening on the ground.  

 

I’m reassured that when you dig deep enough, there is a remarkable convergence in peoples’ dreams.  Not many folks think unchecked development is a desirable end in itself.  The disagreement arises over solutions and over whether there even are solutions. 

 

The answer is yes, there are.  There are ways to grow livable neighborhoods that protect quality of life, habitat for animals (mallards included), clean air and water, quaint main streets, and open space.  The time to get out the watercolors and paint these visions vividly on our imaginations is when development pressure is low.  Now, for example, would be great.

 

Vist GrowSmart Maine at www.growsmartmaine.org for more information on smart growth.

 

Note: The developer’s name has been changed.

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