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Will growth ruin Mayberry?

In this imaginary map of Mayberry, Stokes County and Pilot Mountain are over to the right:


One of my biggest issues is smart growth. I’m very worried about the out-of-control development that has spread like a cancer over much of the South.

Here’s a guest column I wrote on this subject for the Winston-Salem Journal.


Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, NC)

January 29, 2006 Sunday



SECTION: A; Pg. 19

LENGTH: 1540 words

The Yadkin Valley area is at a crossroads. Depending upon how growth is managed in Forsyth, Yadkin, Surry, and Stokes counties, the future could be an ugly one in which “Mayberry country” will be paved over with roads, parking lots and shopping centers. Or the area’s rural natural charm, and the rich Southern culture that goes with it, can be preserved.-

A heavy price to pay

To save mythic Mayberry from those who want to bring in the bulldozers and make a quick buck, many people are going to have to change the way they think. Putting restrictions on how land is used is understandably not a very popular idea, and yet, when lots of land is used badly, the damage and the costs spread far beyond the property lines. Developers take the money and run. The taxpaying public pays the costs thereafter. Rural land, once it’s badly developed, is lost forever.

I have lived in San Francisco for 14 years. What do I care about the Yadkin Valley? I grew up in Yadkin and Forsyth, and I’m planning to live in Stokes when I retire. I recently bought land between Danbury and Madison, and I’ll build a small home there in a few years. I could not afford to retire in California even if I wanted to, and part of my decision to return was based on my confidence that the people in Mayberry country are waking up to what they have that is worth preserving. They are also getting wise to the special interests that, if left unchallenged as sprawl pushes outward from Forsyth, will irreversibly turn the Yadkin Valley area into a place like Atlanta or Charlotte – sprawl, sprawl, and more sprawl, and all the traffic and stress that go with it.

Harsh wake-up call

A 2004 study by the Rand Corp. rated the Triad area as the second most sprawled area in the country, behind only Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif. That should be sufficient warning for all who live here that something must change. For Guilford and Forsyth counties, it is, for the most part, too late. Developers and road-builders have had their way for too long, and the public has been too slow in challenging them. Even when there has been an organized protest against unwise development, another unneeded road, or another annexation, too often those whose neighborhoods are threatened get little support outside the neighborhood.

New roads and shopping centers spread like ringworm. Sprawl is inflamed and voracious on the leading edges, eating everything in its path. But the inside of the ring is blighted, itchy and scarred. New shopping centers sometimes last less than 15 years before they’re boarded up or going broke, because the ringworm has moved on. The real root of downtown Winston-Salem’s problem is not downtown. It is sprawl. Bethabara and Bethania, historic treasures, are now surrounded by ringworm sprawl. A basic rule of wise growth is to protect and preserve historic districts.

Saving our history

Though Forsyth has wisely preserved much more of its history than many places, and though the value of historic districts in local economic development should be clear to all, to fail to preserve Bethabara and Bethania as historical anchors would be very shortsighted.

For the surrounding counties, it is not too late. They must learn from Forsyth’s mistakes, draw some lines and carefully plan for growth.

Stokes is lucky in many ways. Stokes still has plenty of time to plan for growth. U.S. 52 crosses just a small corner of the county, and Stokes has wisely limited growth to the area around King. The Belews Creek steam station, 15 percent of Stokes’ tax base, also is neatly tucked away at a corner of the county. Except for King and Belews Creek, Stokes doesn’t look all that different than it did 35 years ago. Agriculture remains important.

Other than U.S. 52, there are no big roads in Stokes. The hilly terrain adds to the county’s rural atmosphere and inhibits the bad kinds of development. The Dan River and Hanging Rock State Park make Stokes a recreation destination – a very good form of economic development if shoddy strip-zone development is kept out.

Wine country

Yadkin is an easier mark for developers than Stokes, but Yadkin is doing pretty well. Some beautiful vineyards have sprung up where tobacco fields used to be. Parts of Yadkin have become not unlike California’s Napa and Sonoma counties – wine country counties that have done a pretty good job with growth and development. Shallowford Road (I lived there as a boy) has become a popular bicycle route – an inconvenience sometimes for the locals, but a good indicator that it’s a nice place to be. Much of the U.S. 421 corridor is a mess, but other parts of the county have time to plan.

Like Yadkin, Surry also is doing pretty well at preserving its Mayberry charm. An article in the August Reader’s Digest focused on Mount Airy’s quality of life. Mount Airy also has a history of strong civic leadership open to good ideas. Locals Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska, with their Simple Living television series on PBS, are part of a national movement toward simple living, lower consumption, and reliance on local, rather than global, economies and supply lines: in other words, good new ideas that draw on the best of the past. The area from Rockford to Siloam is stunningly beautiful. Pilot Mountain State Park is a huge asset, both for recreation and as a nature preserve.

It’s a good rule of thumb: If tourists want to come to a place, the local people are doing something right.

Imagine a future for the Yadkin Valley in which small family farms could thrive and grow food for local markets. Imagine vineyards thriving economically and agriculturally. Imagine greenbelts where development is carefully managed around the area’s most beautiful, most ecologically sensitive and most historic areas – the Yadkin and Dan river bottoms, Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock State Park, the Rockford-Siloam area, the Stokes and Surry foothills, historic Rockford and Danbury. Imagine no more big roads.

Imagine healthy streams, lots of woods, open fields, hedges – places where wildlife can thrive. I have never seen a place where so much wildlife is killed on the roads. This almost surely means that their habitat is being violated, and wildlife is under pressure. Even the vast galaxies of lightning bugs that thrived along the Yadkin River in midsummer only 30 years ago – just insects, but where are they now? In places where wildlife can thrive, communities also thrive.

Spirit of community

Suburbanization destroys communities and isolates people. Neighbors aren’t neighbors in suburbs, they’re just irritating traffic. Culture, like the environment, is fragile. The mythical town of Mayberry symbolizes a warm, tightly knit, self-reliant rural culture that is threatened but which is by no means gone. With planning and wise growth, mythical Mayberry might flourish. But Mayberry cannot survive uncontrolled sprawl and suburbanization. Look toward Forsyth, and be afraid.

This mythic Mayberry is not just a sentimental vision, though it is rooted in my memories of how beautiful the Yadkin Valley area looked almost 50 years ago. Rather, in a world of rising energy prices – not to mention the global political and environment costs of supplying and consuming that energy – it is a vision that makes sense, economically, environmentally and politically. It is a vision that would improve, rather than degrade, the quality of life. It is a vision that might preserve the values that Southerners cherish in a rapidly changing world.

Some might criticize such a vision as anti-growth, radical, and even anti-American, based on the kind of ideas prevalent in San Francisco. But I say it is a conservative vision as well as a progressive vision. No one will lose except those who want to make a quick buck.

What can local people do to ensure that, as Winston-Salem and surrounding counties grow, the quality of life is more like Mayberry than suburban Atlanta?

Questions to ask

They can start by not taking public policy for granted and not leaving it to special interests. When new roads and new developments are proposed, we should ask ourselves, what will it do to the community and to the health of the land, air and water? What will it look like in 20 years? Who gets the profits, and who will pay the costs?

Planning boards, county commissioners and town councils will listen to what we have to say. We can let our local newspapers know that we want them to cover these issues. And we can get involved, even when unwise development is not in our own backyards.

The most rapid growth in the United States today is along the coasts. The growth inland will be slower, but growth is inevitable. When you don’t have a coast, a river or two is the next best thing. Paris, after all, was built on a river.

The relatively unspoiled Yadkin and Dan river valleys, if developed wisely, are rich areas with room for business, living space, agriculture, recreation, woodlands, green belts, unspoiled scenery and wildlife.

If all those things can be kept in balance, then mythic Mayberry need not become a thing of the past. And we and our descendants will all be healthier and happier.

David Dalton, a former copy editor and assistant system manager at the Journal, is the editorial systems manager at The San Francisco Chronicle.