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New Approach to Managing Growth

In Shepherdstown, Shepherd University boasts a respected environmental studies department. Jefferson Security Bank, a community lender since 1869, has financed environmentally sensitive developments and conservation initiatives.

A couple of miles upstream from Scrabble, the Conservation Fund's Freshwater Institute researches wetlands management. Two miles east, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center occupies a former 540-acre farm and offers courses in farmland conservation and sustainable development.

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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"This area is at the cusp of a very critical time, and there's incredible talent here," said National Park Trust President Paul Pritchard, who lives in Jefferson County and advised the Scrabble group. "Either we're going to go into confrontational mode like Loudoun, or we're going to have leadership."

Fundraising Challenge

The week Scrabble won its bid for the farm, Jeff Keller, senior vice president at Jefferson Security Bank, was mowing his yard in Martinsburg when Thomas, 46, a professor at Shepherd University, called to ask, "Could you just come up and explain some financing options to us?"

"I'll be right over," Keller said.

The goal wasn't to keep the farm, but to build housing that protected the area's environmental assets and respected Scrabble's antebellum history. Members of the group figured they would need a total of $1 million from 10 investors to buy and make payments on the land. They sold stock, cashed out retirement funds, mortgaged their homes, then contacted relatives and friends, anybody "like-minded," Thomas said.

"If we could've banked goodwill, we would've been multimillionaires," she said.

But by Labor Day, they'd raised only $700,000, and Thomas said she realized that "we should have started two years ago."

The Scrabble group pulled out. Almost immediately, another bidder stepped forward. Staley said he is not allowed to discuss details while the farm is under contract.

The Scrabble residents might have lost the farm, but they built a network. In January, Thomas invited local residents to Scrabble's red-brick hilltop church for a first-ever discussion of development issues with both counties' commissioners. "It was standing room only," she said.

They linked up with the Concerned Citizens of Berkeley County, a new community group now several hundred strong that hopes to help formulate Berkeley's comprehensive plan. And Thomas has been in touch with conservation-minded developers, in case the latest Staley farm contract collapses.

Today, the National Park Trust is advising two more groups of panhandle residents on buying farmland near their towns. The Scrabble community, Pritchard said, inspired them.

"With people like this," he said, "Everybody wins."

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