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There Goes The Neighborhood

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To make room for new suburbs, 50 acres of forest are felled every day.

Americans are at last beginning to question what a half-century flood of suburban expansion has wrought. Distressed about traffic jams, deteriorating air quality, and the loss of forests and rural lands to cookie-cutter suburbs, residents in places like Cherokee County are saying enough is enough - and electing potiticians who will heed their call. America is starting to witness "the beginning of the end of sprawl," says Christopher B. Leinberger, a nationally known developer and real estate consultant. "The American dream is once again changing," says Leinberger. "the aging baby boomers and the Gen T'ers want a different sory," one that includes a return to city life and the construction of villagelike, pedestrian-oriented developments with plenty of open land nearby.

If such a change is indeedon the way, it's happening none too soon for places like Atlanta. The metropolitan area has become the poster child for a helter-skelter pattern of growth that has done grievous harm to the environment and eroded a once-vaunted quality of life. Unfettered by georgraphic boundaries and fueled by a superheated Sun Belt economy, Atlanta has become one of the fastest spreading metropolitan areas in history. With its population having doubled in the past 30 years, to 3.6 million, and with as many as 95,000 newcomers arriving each year, metro Atlanta has marched outward at such a rapid rate that its north-south diameter has grown from 65 miles to 110 miles in a decade. While the metro population has grown at about 4 percent a year, the region has been devouring land at four times that rate.

Since 1973 the Atlanta area has lost nearly 25 percent of its tree cover, or roughly 350,000 acres, satellite photographs show. Every day 50 acres of trees fall to development. Tens of thousands of acres of pasture have been transformed into homes and stores. Such habitat loss and fragmentation have taken a heavy toll on the region's bird populations, as many nesting and breeding grounds have either been destroyed or whittled down so drastically that predators can easlily kill avian speces. Deep-woodland nesters and grassland species have been particularly hard-hit. In north Georgia and the western Carolinas - the Piedmont - development has hurt species such as the bobwhite quail, Bachman's sparrow, loggerhead, shrike, eastern meadowlar, and prairie warbler, all of which have shown steady declines over the past two decades.

"The entire Piedmont is heading toward one big area of spraul, and when you lose habitat outright you lose birds. Period," says Chuck Hunter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southeast coordinator for non-game bird species. "You did not start out with the healthiest environment here, because of cotton farming and logging earlier in the century. The difference is that with farming or logging you can always restore it. But once you've got houses and Wal-Marts, there's no return. It's the final nail in the coffin."

As trees are filled and hillsides flattened, rivers such as Cherokee County's Etowah are becomong choked with silt. Chemicals and pesticides flow into the water from new parking lots and lawns, harming rare species of darters and mussels. The region's air-quality has deteriorated so much that Washington has cut off federal highway funds to the 13-county metropolitan area.

But if Atlanta has become a symbol of out-of-control growth, its leaders are now moving to turn their region into an examply of how spraul can be contained. In 1998 Georgia's newly elected governor, Roy E. Barnes, persuaded the legislature to approve the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), an antisprawl superagency. The GRTA can issue to up $2 billion in bonds for mass transit and land preservation, block road projects that encourage sprawl, and control important land-use decisions throughout the region. Barnes is now pushing for a requirment that counties preserve 20 percent of their land as open space or risk a cutoff in state funds.

The real estate boom threatening Cherokee County's environment is being fed, of course, by land sales, and many of the sellers are lifelong residents of the country. For much of the 20th century, Cherokee County was a relatively poor place where farm families eked out a living. Many areas didn't have electricity until the late 1940's. So now, with land selling for $20,000 an acre, it's easy to understand why many families have decided to finally make a profit off their farms. Whether conservation subdivisions are the wave of the future or merely oases in an ever-widening sea of sprawl remains to be seen. But for those alarmed at the continuing loss of America's open spaces, events in Cherokee County offer some reason for hope. The mere fact that the nation's 50-year model of suburban growth is being widely challenged is a sign that change is in the air.

Ursula Cox, whose family came to Cherokee County in the 1830's, is a prophet of such change. She spends much of her time trying to convince her fellow citizens that land has a value other than that fixed by real estate appraisers. Cox, 46 and an accomplished equstrienne, shares her 80-acre farm with a menagerie of horses, geese, dogs, cats, chickens, and Vietnamese potbellied pig. Over the past several years, she has gone to battle against a number of projects that she says epitomize the thoughtless development threatening the country. Among them is the "northern arc," a perimeter highway that would leap over Atlanta's current beltway and open up central and northern Cherokee County to further sprawl.

Sitting at an old picnic table in front of a 19th-century farmhouse splotchy with peeling white paint, Cox says that as more fields and forests are consumed by development, people are realizing that unfettered growth leaves a bleak landscape in its wake. Gesturing toward the old cedars and magnolias that tower above her house, Cox says, "This place is the same as it's been for decades. To me, it's a place of shelter and inspiration. But now land has become pure commodity. Real estate has become big business, and that shouldn't be a country's mainstay. People tell me I should sell my place and make a fortune, but I look at land as something you love. People say I just want to stop growth; that's not so. I just want to see it managed. I just want to make this a nice place to live."

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