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New Approach to Managing Growth

Town in W.Va.'s Eastern Panhandle Tries to Buy Farm Before Developers

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page B01

SCRABBLE, W.Va. -- Last summer, when his cousin's farm went up for sale, Jim Staley walked down Scrabble Road and told his neighbors what they already knew: Because the farm was only an hour-and-a-half drive from Washington, any buyer would likely want to plant houses, a lot of them, on the land.

"Isn't that terrible," Carolyn Thomas recalled thinking, a sentiment echoed by the other 21 Scrabble residents. On a warm night in June, three of them dressed up, drove to the lawyers' office in Charles Town and made an offer.

In Scrabble, W.Va., residents tried to buy neighboring farmland to protect against heavy development. One farm in the area is slated for a subdivision of as many as 140 homes. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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"We're the community of Scrabble," teachers, retirees, government workers and small-business owners, they said in a short presentation. "This is an investment not only for ourselves but in our community." Done talking, they put down $10,000 in earnest money. On the ride home, Thomas's cell phone rang: The 300-acre farm was theirs, for $3.6 million.

"Now what?" she wondered.

It was a long shot from the start -- saving a community one farm at a time. Especially given the hundreds of acres around Scrabble already headed for development and the soaring cost of the land the neighbors were trying to buy.

But the Scrabble plan reflected a broader truth here on West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle: a determination to find unique answers to the challenges of exurban growth. In that, the people here are hoping to succeed where communities such as nearby Loudoun and Frederick counties have faltered.

"We've got the best of all worlds, which is why everybody wants to move in," said William E. Knode Jr., president of Jefferson Security Bank in Shepherdstown, which helped Scrabble with its plan. "We don't have to do it the wrong way."

At the Heart of Growth

Jack Staley was a slight, stooped dairyman who, beyond canning 50 quarts of tomatoes each fall, didn't prepare much for the future. Single and childless, Staley left neither will nor wishes for his farm when he died two years ago at age 87.

Jim Staley, a second cousin who lives down the road, administered the estate, bound by strict state laws. The farm was to go to the highest bidder -- and if the constant calls and visits to the area's aging farmers were any guide, the buyer would be a housing developer.

Cut through by Rocky Marsh Run, a spring-fed trout stream that divides Berkeley and Jefferson counties, and situated near a series of bluffs overlooking a curving stretch of the Potomac River, Staley's farm lies at the heart of West Virginia's fastest-growing region. The 2000 U.S. Census shows Berkeley County's population increased by nearly 30 percent since 1990, to 76,000. Jefferson County grew by nearly 20 percent to 42,000.

As Loudoun and Frederick residents did decades ago, people here are beginning to discuss what they'd like their home to look like in a generation. Berkeley hopes to complete its first comprehensive plan next year, which, ideally, would serve as a blueprint for growth in a county with no zoning. The Jefferson County Commission is newly dominated by slow-growth advocates.

Newcomers -- the potters who work in the antebellum broom shop in Scrabble, the Beltway professionals buying up Victorian houses in Harpers Ferry -- want flora and farms to stay.

But as farmers here say, their land is their 401(k). Around Scrabble, hundreds of acres have gone on the block. Trees flutter with surveyors' flags; roads bear white painted markings to guide aerial photographers. The 90-acre Griffith Farm, its white frame house now empty, is slated for a subdivision of as many as 140 homes. In nearby Kearneysville, an 80-acre farm recently sold to a developer in 45 minutes.

Yet this region also has drawn expertise in managing growth. In the late 1990s, the National Park Trust saved Schoolhouse Ridge, a historic Civil War battlefield in Harpers Ferry, from the bulldozer by buying and transferring it to the National Park Service.

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