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 But Don't Take Liberties With Liberty

John Brain

(1/4/2004) Think of the disasters that can befall any rural community -- fire, flood, tornado. Well, Liberty Township in southern Pennsylvania is facing a man-made disaster that threatens to overwhelm it just as surely as any natural disaster: predatory development.

Liberty Township has the misfortune to be situated on the border of a state that has placed strict limits on development. Maryland jurisdictions are urged to impose stiff impact fees on developments to compensate for the increased costs to local governments for roads, schools, fire and ambulance services, police and libraries. As a result, developers have turned an eye on adjacent states where controls are less stringent.

As The Post reported [front page, Nov. 2] in the case of Liberty Township, the Wormald Development Cos., a well-heeled developer based in Frederick, wants to build more than 1,100 homes as a dormitory suburb of Washington. These are not homes for the locals, most of whom can't afford upscale properties costing as much as $500,000. These homes are meant to appeal to émigrés from the inflated Washington real estate market 70 miles away.

The Wormald development is being marketed as an "Upscale Equestrian Neighborhood" with a folksy Liberty Valley Village Center -- surrounded, of course, by acres of mall-style parking. But who would want to relocate among people who resent and resist the incursion and fear the effects on their tax rates, schools and roads? Locals also fear being outnumbered and outvoted by new residents.

Slow natural growth has been the style of development in Liberty Township since John Hanson ("Hance") Steelman settled the valley in the 1700s. First came the farmers, then the artisans and tradesmen of Fairfield village and eventually a few scattered homes that did little to spoil the view. Today Liberty Township is still a pristine American Auburn where, to quote English poet Thomas Gray, many a "lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea."

In the 1970s an ambitious developer attempted "Charnita" (named after Charles and Anita), an upscale retirement community that featured ski slopes and an airport with well-spaced homes sited along Cessna Trail and Piper Circle. But the sewage wouldn't perk, new environmental laws were passed and Charnita went belly-up after the suicide of its developer. Today the ski area is Ski Liberty, and the airport is the Mid-Atlantic Soaring Center, one of the largest gliding sites on the East Coast. But the new homes are few, and ski slopes and airports don't spoil the view.

The response of Liberty Township residents to the Liberty Valley development has been to organize. A town meeting straight out of Norman Rockwell saw the birth of the "Save Our Liberty" group, as well as demands that the township supervisors reject the development on grounds amply documented by the county department of planning. But although more than 90 percent of area residents are opposed to the development, according to Save Our Liberty leaders, some community leaders stand to benefit handsomely from the sale of their lands or services. The local newspaper has run a full-page "advertorial" for the development company on its op-ed page, without mentioning it was paid for.

Those who want to sell out say they are only looking to provide for their retirement, but the battle between beneficiaries and opponents of the development is joined and already bloody. One recently elected supervisor is vocally anti-development, but the position of the other two remains in question.

When the British redcoats invaded in 1776, colonial patriots rallied to oppose them, and it took a war to establish a new nation based on the principles of democracy. Today "We the People" are confronting not an army of redcoats but a battalion of lawyers; not cannon, but the deep pockets of developers. "Be a Pennsylvania Patriot," we say, "Join the Liberty Revolution today!"

This emotional campaign may seem like a revolution in a teacup, but it resonates in thousands of rural communities throughout America. They wonder, "Will we be next?"

The success of Save Our Liberty in resisting predatory development will be a test case for this growing national issue.

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