Suburbia Catches Up With Unger, W.Va.
Those Who Fled Sprawl Fight Development With Outhouse Protest

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006

UNGER, W.Va. -- Twenty-two years ago, burned-out Washington lawyer George Farnham hauled his 1955 jukebox around Sleepy Creek Mountain and moved into an old farmhouse here where he found peace and understanding and got into collectibles.

Here, his ponytail turned gray. Here, he erected four huge fiberglass statues in his back yard -- Muffler Man, a 26-foot-tall beach boy in sunglasses, Santa Claus and a monstrous grocery clerk called Big John. And here, he fit right in with the other eccentrics who had come to escape the madness across the mountain.

Then, one day recently, Farnham discovered something scary. Test holes were being drilled in a field across from his house. And he knew: All that he had fled years before had found him once again. A housing development was coming to paradise.


In the weeks since, Farnham, 52, and others who migrated to Morgan County to escape urban insanity and suburban sprawl have launched an old-fashioned '60s-style anti-development campaign.

In protest, they've erected multicolored outhouses along county roads and the main streets of the county seat, Berkeley Springs. They've called for a moratorium on big development. One weekend this month, they rallied before Farnham's backyard titans to repeat the mantra, "Keep Morgan County Rural. Keep Morgan County Green."

The bearded Farnham, clad in jeans, cowboy boots and a pale blue polo shirt, said he paid $65,000 for his seven-acre property two decades ago. The son of a lawyer, Farnham said he was raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., and grew to detest suburbia. "For me, it was the sameness," he said. "The restaurants, the stores, the houses, just block after block of the same."

He attended George Washington University Law School and gained public notice in the early 1980s as a leader in the failed initiative to legalize marijuana in the District. "Those days are gone," he said recently.

In Unger, he found freedom -- mainly from zoning regulations. This enabled him to assemble in his yard his car-stopping collection of fiberglass giants in the past few years.

He also has a gigantic eagle with a 12-foot wingspan, a huge crab, two giant apples and a collection of plastic flamingos that belongs to his wife, Pam, who raises alpacas.

Farnham said that along with the freedom and beauty, he fell in love with Morgan County's people -- "an eclectic mix of old-timers and aging hippies who got here in the '60s and '70s . . . You'll meet more characters in Morgan County per square mile than you will anywhere else."

The joke in Berkeley Springs for years has been that there are more massage therapists than lawyers, he said.

Roughly 100 miles from Washington, Morgan is the westernmost of the three counties in the thriving tip of West Virginia's eastern panhandle. Pinched between Northern Virginia and Western Maryland, it joins Berkeley and Jefferson counties, which are now bustling with development and increasingly a part of the Washington and Baltimore suburbs.

"I could tell even 22 years ago that Jefferson County and Berkeley County were going to fall," Farnham, attended by one of his 14 cats, said in an interview in his living room.

But Morgan County, he believed, would be safe. "I thought we'd be immune," he said. "That's why all of us who have moved here in the last 20, 30 years have come out here. We really didn't think it was going to follow this far out."

The county still has its down-home charm. Parking meters in Berkeley Springs still take nickels. Phone numbers are remembered by the last four digits -- the area code and exchange are the same almost everywhere. And the valley between Sleepy Creek and Cacapon mountains is beautiful.

Morgan County is also a cultural crossroads. Indians frequented the warm mineral waters of Berkeley Springs centuries ago, as have countless visitors since. The county has its own observatory, donated by the U.S. Naval Academy. Berkeley Springs has a large health food store and homeopathic apothecary and, nearby, a thriving community of painters, writers, sculptors, woodworkers and retired employees of the CIA.

"I believe there's some kind of spiritual quality about the place," said Lydia Walker, who brought her family from Youngstown, Ohio, to an 18-acre spread here in 1971.

The protesters, who Walker stressed represent more than just the area's post-'60s "dropouts," worry about the development's impact on private wells and septic systems and on the rural county's limited infrastructure -- as well as such things as light pollution of the night sky.

The area, incidentally, scores a solid 3 on the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, as opposed to Washington's bright 8, said Kevin Boles, who runs the observatory.

"We're not opposed to growth in the county," Farnham said. There have been other developments elsewhere, he said. "We're just used to people moving in one at a time."

Huntington Farms, the development going up across Winchester Grade road from Farnham's home, envisions a mere 56 houses on 94 acres. The developer, Paul VanWagner of Rockville, said his company, PVW Enterprises, based in Martinsburg, W.Va., bought the land more than a year ago. After months of review and an advertised public hearing, the county planning commission approved the subdivision March 28, he said in statement.

He pointed out that 90 percent of the lots will be between 1.45 and 2.85 acres. "I don't think it's fair to single out this property," he said later by phone.

His brother, George, said they plan to sell the land to Frederick-based Dan Ryan Builders. "We own it, and under law we have a right to develop it," he said. "Who are [the protesters] to say who they want to move into their county? . . . I could see if I was putting in a big dump. We're just putting in houses."

There was no work underway at the site in a visit earlier this month, although two pieces of construction equipment were parked there beside stacks of shiny metal pipes.

The "Outhouses of Unger," and the slogan, "If over-development sucks your well dry, you'll need one of these!" was Farnham's idea. Seventy five, of varying sizes and colors, have been erected across the county, he said.

Farnham said he believes the Huntington Farms development will be hard to stop. But he has no plans for another escape. "We love it here," he said. "We're part of the community. I couldn't imagine leaving."

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