Holding Their Ground

As development devours land from Virginia’s Piedmont to Gettysburg, a new coalition rises in opposition.

By Marc Leepson

Union guns in the Peach Orchard

Credit: Gettysburg NMP

Nearly a century and a half after Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous address at Gettysburg—where the Civil War's decisive battle raged for three days—the countryside around this southern Pennsylvania town seems to have reached its own crossroads. As the pressure to develop the land surrounding Gettysburg in Adams County intensifies, the area is steadily, and worrisomely, turning suburban. The sizable belt of apple, pear, and peach orchards, for example, has been giving way to subdivision after subdivision as some 11,000 acres of farmland have been developed in the last decade. The county's population increased by nearly 27 percent from 1990 to 2004. The trend shows no signs of diminishing.

"We're becoming a suburb of Washington and Baltimore," says Alice Estrada, the executive director of Main Street Gettysburg. "It's very easy to develop here because we are townships, many of which don't have very sophisticated comprehensive plans. And they don't update them. Township meetings are often packed with residents, but they're helpless to fight sprawl because the plans allow this kind of thing." Plus, Estrada says, "the land is relatively cheap compared to that in nearby Maryland, and our farmers aren't prospering. It's a very serious issue."

Gettysburg is hardly alone. As this terrain loses its rural character, so does much of a broad stretch of the mid-Atlantic region that runs south from here along a 175-mile corridor all the way to Charlottesville, Va. Paralleling the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge and Catoctin mountains, this band of Piedmont counties takes in an unmatched collection of historic, cultural, recreational, and scenic treasures. Its focus is the historic Old Carolina Road, a passage that began as an Indian trail called the Great Warriors Path and later served, from colonial days into the automobile age, as one of the nation's main north-south roads. Today it is heavily traveled U.S. Route 15, from Gettysburg to Orange in central Virginia, where it continues as Virginia Route 20 to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello near Charlottesville.

Most of this corridor, especially the northern two-thirds, sits in the far shadow of the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, where development has increased drastically over the years. Subdivisions, shopping malls, and commercial strips have crept ever westward from the two big cities and expanded outward. 

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