March 10, 2000
I’m a poet of the suburbs, not of the farm. That’s the opening line of an essay collection I dream of writing. It will be called , and it will chronicle the comings and goings, concerns and celebrations, dreams and decisions of a “turn of the century” suburban homemaker who lives on a scant quarter-acre of ground in a typical tract development of single family homes with all the modern conveniences.
(That “turn of the century” designation amuses me now. I conceived this book in about 1994 in one of those creative epiphanies where I “received” the opening line like a bit of divine revelation. Then I described the voice of the essays as that of a “late twentieth century working mother.” It’s not the twentieth century anymore, or certainly will not be by the time the book shapes up, and I’m no longer the “typical” working mother in that I no longer go out to a regular job. If I don’t get busy on this, I might have to write in the voice of a mid-twenty-first-century grandmother in an assisted living facility.)
I touched on this subject in the early days of this on-line journal, in particular on March 1 and March 3 of last year. I wrote a little of how the land my house sits on had once been part of the large and busy Reichert farm, but all that remains of that enterprise now is some acreage behind the old barn and what appears to be ruins of the original farmhouse. Since about August, the area surrounding the old house has become “Fieldstone Farm,” another development of single family homes which currently has only a few residents but lots of dwellings in various stages of completion.
It was in August that another portent of proposed development sprang up in the township. A large tract near my house sprouted a sign with a well-known local developer’s name on it and website which I visited at my earliest opportunity. There I learned all about the plans for this now-clear 95 acre tract (seen at left in a photo unabashedly downloaded from the developer’s website by me and tweaked a little in brightness and contrast, also by me, although I’ve left the developer’s conveniently-applied street names intact.)
What you are looking at is a small part of the former Dennison farm, the part that fronts on the two big thoroughfares indicated. (The scene looks west. My house is at the top and to the left in an area not captured by the photo). When I first moved to this township in 1976 (I am a life-long resident of the area), there was a farmhouse in that center clump, and the land was worked as a grain operation.
The area was ripe for development, however. The first township meeting I attended, only a few months after I moved in, considered a zoning variance for a tract across Linglestown Road and a little east from this site. That developer wished to install a strip shopping center with a large supermarket. Residents (including me) turned out in droves to speak against the plan, which was ultimately approved, and became the home of the supermarket I visit nearly every day. A few years later a cluster of apartments designed for senior citizen occupancy was built on the northwest corner of this intersection, behind a stand of old growth pines that the developer left undisturbed.
Not long after that the Dennison house acquired a new roof, an event which helped me relax about the destiny of the property. When I came out the end of my street and turned left down Progress Avenue (on my way to the supermarket), the new chimney flashing gleaming in the sun as I approached made me feel secure that the farm and its rolling acres would be there for a long time.
I don’t remember when farm operations ceased there. By the mid 1980s the house had become vacant. I recall a walk I took up that long lane one Sunday morning in maybe 1987. I peered in the windows (my interest in nineteenth century farmhouse architecture then just blooming) and tried to imagine the lives that had animated the spaces. Sometime in the early 1990s, in the dead of winter, the farmhouse burned to the ground. As I recall, the cause was determined to be the accidental result of homeless squatters building a fire inside the house.
In order for the developer to achieve his “vision” of this tract as a self-contained town meeting all the needs of its 1000 resident families (who, you will note, will live in residences that occupy only about 20 acres, since 75 acres will be given over to recreation and green space), a completely new township zoning category will have to be created. Currently the regulations allow only certain residential uses such as retirement homes. There is a history of opposition to this developer’s plans too complicated to go into here. (Please note that I showed some restraint in choosing the word “plan” over “scheme.” In rhetoric, the strategy of using a word by pointing out that you have not used it is called apophasis.) Suffice it to say that the developer and the township are currently in litigation over another plan gone awry, and many residents are understandably concerned and very very negative about this new idea.
Within the last two weeks the township long range planning committee recommended that this plan for development not be approved. Pursuant to regulations, that recommendation (or, rather, disrecommendation) was to be taken to a zoning hearing set for March 9 at 6:00 in the township building.
I had not attended a meeting like this since that one back in 1976. But this proposal has captured my attention, as well as my distrust, my fear, and my anger, so I decided that it was once again time to become a vocal rather than a passive citizen.
The room where such meetings are held can seat about 150 people. When I arrived just before six I had to park quite a distance from the building, behind the adjacent elementary school lot along what is normally the school’s bus lane. Inside, I discovered (not to my surprise) that the room was packed with residents, reporters, their equipment, officials, and the required array of lawyers representing both sides.
A neighbor with whom I fell in step as I walked from the parking lot said he understood that opinion was divided about the plan. Among those seated in the front row (meaning they’d made it their business to get there quite early) was a member of my church congregation, a city planner whose letters in support of this development have recently been published in the city newspaper. I was able to squeeze into the row of standees beginning to ring the perimeter of the room. I acquired a seat when a reporter decided to reposition herself after it was apparent that the microphones were not working properly.
The meeting began with a speech by the developer’s lawyer and a video introduction to the plan, complete with comments by residents indicating strong support for such a concept.. (It was not really suggested that the commenters were residents of this township or even this county, but neither was it suggested or made clear that they were not. They were not identified by name. For all I know, they were actors.) Both the video and the speech would lead perhaps an uncritical person to conclude that this idea is the solution to all of our societal problems, including the demise of the family dinner hour.
After about an hour, when it became clear that the audio system was going to continue to be balky, a commissioner suggested that the proceedings be continued to a later date. He explained that the law had required them to set this hearing for a date so close to the planning board’s decision that they had been unable to request the use of the adjacent school auditorium, which would be able to accommodate the numbers that had turned out. The meeting was adjourned until April 6.
You can be sure I’ll be there.