How Do We Keep Rural America Rural?

Article excerpt

BRIDGEWATER, N.H. -- With a classic glacial lake, steep mountainsides and grand vistas, the area around my family's summer home draws visitors and would-be new residents like a magnet. The visioning statements that surrounding towns have adopted place high value on land stewardship and retaining a rural lifestyle.

But what do the towns' actual zoning statutes call for? Overwhelmingly, they focus on suburban-style one- and two-acre lots, highly popular in recent years. And 68 percent of the watershed is technically buildable.

So what's to be done? A new Watershed Master Plan by the Newfound Lake Region Association, backed up by scientific analysis and polling of residents by nearby Plymouth State University, is designed to open a clear public dialogue and help towns resolve the tough development choices they face.

The Newfound area's growth dilemma isn't mentioned in "Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities"--a report released last month by the International City/County Management Association under an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But it's typical of the challenge so many rural American communities feel today: How to keep a rural quality of life, preserve our landscapes, sustain our small towns and cities, even while positioning ourselves for better jobs and family futures?

Rural America varies greatly, with towns and farms, mining communities, prairies, forests, rangelands covering thousands of square miles nationwide. But it's also the outer suburban edge communities, plus second home and retirement concentrations, not to mention the "gateway" communities near our coastlines and national parks.

But from all sorts of rural communities, states Matthew Dalbey, a chief author of the new report, questions have rolled in--"We're different from big cities and suburbs; how can we put 'smart growth' to work to stay rural, to preserve our quality of life, but still develop?"

First, the report advises, support your legacy--the rural landscape you have today--by keeping working lands (farms, forests, mines) viable and by conserving natural lands.

Second, help existing communities by preserving and investing in such historic mainstays as small-town Main Streets.

Third, create "great new places"--neighborhoods and communities' so attractive that young people won't want to leave.

The sad truth is that much rural development steers straight away from those directions. Instead of conserving working lands, it lets many be chopped up for exurban sprawl housing. Rather than undergirding Main Streets, towns and counties have welcomed--under pressure from national chains and tax-hungry local officials--collections of WalMarts and auto parks, hamburger and fried chicken joints, usually spread along sign-glutted roadways through once-placid farm and forestland. …