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Jewish World Review June 8, 2000 / 5 Sivan, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports

Home on the range -- BULLDOZERS seem as common a sight as cows dotting the landscape of this rural Virginia farmland. When we moved here two years ago, only a handful of new houses were visible from the two-lane road connecting our home to the small town of Purcellville. Now, sprawling neo-Victorian model homes have sprung up as quickly and numerously as weeds. I must admit, I'm not entirely happy with all these new neighbors, though I'm sympathetic to what attracts them and millions like them to move further away from the city.

Our decision to move to a rural area was made without much forethought. With our children grown, we were casually looking to move from our large, suburban home. We happened on a lovely log cabin with a gorgeous view of the Shenandoah range and 9 acres of pasture some 60 miles from Washington, D.C., and wrote a contract on the property within a week. Only after the ink was dry did we begin to consider what an enormous change the move would represent.

Since I work in town only two or three days a week, and my husband runs his business from our home, the commute seemed manageable. It takes about an hour and 15 minutes most days, almost all of it traveled at 65 mph, so long as I avoid the peak rush hours. But even with sharing the driving with my son, who has also moved his family to Purcellville, I come home very tired from my days in the city. If my children were still young, I simply could not do it.

Yet, young families are just the ones who seem to be snatching up the crop of new houses that sprout all around us. The schools are good. The people friendly. Crime is low -- a shoving match outside the supermarket qualifies as "crime" in the local papers, as does abusive language in public and attempting to buy cigarettes if underage. I've joked to friends that we live in "Pleasantville," the movie version of small-town life in 1950s America.

No wonder so many families want to come here, but I worry that the commute itself may undermine the very "family values" that attract them in the first place. Parents, especially mothers, who already work long hours may have little energy left over after two or three extra hours in a car each day.

Most of the objection to so-called urban sprawl comes from environmentalists concerned with people despoiling nature. But converting farmland to 3-acre homesites may actually exact less toll on the environment than farming (cutting down forests for the same purpose, however, would harm the environment). The legitimate objection to the phenomenon is mostly aesthetic. Tract homes or faux mansions every few hundred feet simply aren't as beautiful, at least to those not actually living in them, as rolling hills of wheat and oats.

So, what can -- or should -- be done to preserve those amber waves of grain? Loudoun County, where my home is located, elected a slow-growth board of supervisors during the last election, but the town of Purcellville itself rejected the more anti-growth slate of candidates in the last election. No one, however, has any really great ideas about how to stop folks from coming. And why should we stop those who want to share the same things we already enjoy?

No, the answer isn't draconian zoning laws or even mass transit, which doesn't shorten the commute but actually adds to it. Technology has already helped ease the problem for people like me who can "telecommute" from their home offices at least some of the time. Many women especially have decided to forego bigger paychecks that require more hours and longer commutes and now work part time near home.

As for the views, the best way yet devised to avoid seeing houses is to plant trees. Maybe as more farmland gets turned into home lots, more trees will appear as well. And that would be the final irony, since most of these bucolic hills were heavily forested a few hundred years ago before the first settlers established their farms here. If more people mean more trees, it will not have been such a bad bargain after all. And if not, there's always the rest of the 95 percent of U.S. land mass that lies vacant to which I can retreat.

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