Beetle farm for sale

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Don’t know what possessed me to do it.  Up until about 3 years ago I couldn’t grow a thing.  There were actually a couple of silk plants sitting around my office and I even managed to kill them.  Anyhow there was this little piece of our yard crammed in next to our deck and I thought some rose bushes would look just swell there.

So one bush led to another and three years later you could say I’ve got some thorns on my hands, and back and a few other places where thorns aren’t supposed to be.  Defying my natural tendencies I’ll have 300 or so blooming roses in a couple of weeks along with the 3000 weeds and probably an onslaught of about 1,000 beetles trying to feast on the petals.

Nothing stops beetles.  Sprays, powders, weeds and even those fowl smelling pellets that you push into the roots don’t bother them.  Because they love roses.  The problem is we’d like to sell the place soon and any prospective buyer won’t want any part of the beetles and I can’t imagine digging out a dozen bushes that are all inter twined and the stones and mulch that surround them.

It’s a lot like the dilemma Pennsylvania finds itself in.  After a half century of encouraging suburban population growth, largely by building highways and sewer plants the governments of the United States and Pennsylvania have convinced themselves on senior levels that sprawl is our number one environmental problem.

For the last decade the five fastest growing counties in the state have embarked on massive open space programs.  Bucks, Montgomery and Chester Counties alone have bonded more than $300 million to buy open space and now they’re backed by the Ridge Administrations’ $645 million Growing Greener money.

And some of it must be working.  In a new study conducted for Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation by Dr. Steven Hayward of the Pacific Research Institute, Hayward found that the 5 counties in the state with the fastest growing populations gained over 15,000 acres of farmland between 1992 and 1997.  Bucks County has gained more farmland than the combined losses in the hot housing markets in neighboring Chester and Montgomery Counties.

But one person’s sprawl is another’s backyard.  And what we call our backyards is making all the difference in these numbers.  There’s farm land and forest land.  Farm land grows things under control like wheat, pigs, soy or cattle.  Forest land grows deer, snakes and trees.  Last year the United States Department Of Agriculture National Resource Inventory bulldozed Pennsylvania’s political landscape with the news that 1.1 million acres or about 1700 miles of forest land or farm land had been developed between 1992 and 1997.  Taking all 169,615 single family building permits issued at the same time and that’s almost 7 acres a house or 4% of the state’s entire landmass in just five years.  At a time when the US Census Bureau actually believes the Commonwealth lost population.  In other words the numbers that drove the big government money on to the field were wrong by nearly a factor of four.  Last week they were withdrawn and attributed to a computer error by the Department of Agriculture.  Now the governments don’t know the numbers or whether my roses are wooded open space or a beetle farm.

Bad numbers make will make for bad policy.  Where the zoning technicalities fail to stem the tide of growth the governments are set to drop a billion dollars into buying outlying farms and forests forcing growth into more contained areas.  Just as 300 roses bring 1,000 beetles, 300 houses will bring 1,000 people and 600 cars.  The closer they are together the more congestion there will be and if sprawl equals congestion the answer is in improved transportation not central planning designed to artificially move markets.   As to the real dreamers who believe that there will be some residential renaissance in the cities in America’s northeast corridor they only need to remember that the crowded row houses built near inner-city factories were contradictions of the American dream when they were built nonetheless now when the factories long ago left.  Taking the same concept into suburban office parks today and it won’t work any better than it did 150 years ago. 

     In these affluent times governments won’t be able to stem the tide of new development in attractive suburbs.  As natural as it is for beetles to flock to roses, humans flock to houses.  That ideal was rooted into every immigrant who ever sweated in a row house near a factory in a city.  Someday if our governments recognize that fact they’ll be able to deal with the consequences.   In the meantime while the government money is hot to buy I’ll just have to figure out if they are paying more for wooded open space or beetle farms.