Sprawl and Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Is it too late for the Amish epicenter?

The Pennsylvania Countryside

Credit: Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau / Terry Ross

Lancaster County, Pa.

Score: 45

Category: Worst-Rated Destinations

Mention Lancaster County, Pa., to most Americans and they think verdant fields and Amish farmers, both of which have attracted tourists to this area 60 miles west of Philadelphia for decades. Some come to see the collection of wonderfully preserved 18th-century houses, in the city of Lancaster and outlying villages, and still more travel here to learn about timeless Amish traditions. But things have changed—even in Lancaster.

"This is a rural county experiencing tremendous sprawl," says David Schuyler, professor of American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, and a Lancaster city resident. "There's significant suburban development, an exploding population of commuters traveling to Philadelphia and Baltimore each day, and increased pressures between homeowners and Amish farmers."

Survey panelists echoed Schuyler's comments, and expressed regret that the changes are detrimental to the area's authenticity. "Every time I visit here, I feel the cultural integrity is constantly compromised," one wrote. Another applauded the county's impressive track record of saving open space and farmland, but noted that "The Amish are lost amidst the sprawl and schlock." Perhaps the saddest commentary came from a panelist who claimed "40 years of familiarity with this destination" and went on to attest "that it is now a congested and confusing place … Housing and commercial development have transformed the destination."

Robin Sarratt-Cohen, vice president of the Lancaster County Historical Society, moved to the area from Delaware last summer. She applauds the active arts and culture in Lancaster, and describes local interest in county history as "rising." Unfortunately, retailers trying to capitalize on that history continue to chip away at the area's unique character, especially by misappropriating the Amish "look." Is there really anything historical about a new outlet center—even one built around three (fake) silos?

There have been successes that protect the multimillion-dollar tourism industry here. The Lancaster Farmland Trust has preserved nearly 14,000 acres of prime farmland, and the county's Agricultural Preserve Board has preserved more than 45,000 acres. "They've saved quite a number of farms so they can't be developed," says research librarian Philip Crnkovich, a lifelong resident. "But there's a constant balancing act of preservation efforts vs. growth … A lot of people who have retired after us visiting as tourists like the farmland but don't want the unpleasantness of living next to a farm."

With the new Lancaster County Convention Center slated to open in the spring of 2009, local planners expect still more changes—and visitors. One survey respondent acknowledged that it is "a bit late" to stem the development tide transforming the historic heart of the county, but aggressive planning "may save some of the more remote, less well known areas." 

Read about the Underground Railroad in Lancaster County

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Submitted by Tim at: October 26, 2008
I grew up in Lancaster in the 1970s and early 1980s and my family roots on both sides go deep into Lancaster soil. Though I now live out of the area for the past 16 years, I return often to visit family and it's no surprise to me that Lancaster County rated so low on the list. I'm appalled at the continued lack of regard for a comprehensive preservation plan - with zoning controlled by each individual township, it seems an impossible task to foster a county-wide plan to save the character of this beautiful place. While I don't know the history of when the tourism boom started, I always am sad that it's focus is so much on the Amish and not on the great history of Lancaster city. I applaud efforts to tell the Underground Railroad stories and to preserve the downtown, but someone needs to do something to save the residents of the county from being surrounded by bedroom communities and ugly development.