Before and After

Andrew Smeltz
September 01, 1998

Late September, the chill evening air predicted a hard winter. Split-rail fences ambled along both sides of a dirt road. An oak stood nearby, and in the tree's spread branches a mourning dove preened. Rows of wilted corn stalks flanked the fences, and at a farm down the road a rooster strutted.

sign with sky in background

That was 60 years ago.

The dirt road has long since been paved over. Instead of cornfields, apartment buildings flank the road, and the oak was chopped down in favor of a trim blue spruce.

At a township meeting in Perry County, wives and their husbands gather; shopkeepers, homemakers, farmers, and workers sit in metal folding chairs. Debra Peterman, a Penn State student, shows the people slides. They see before and after photos: the dirt road, the paved road; the spreading oak, the trim blue spruce; the cornfield, the apartment complex.

It happened like this in the world, wrote the English essayist T.H. White in The Goshawk. Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger. Like many children in southeastern Pennsylvania, I grew up hearing about what "was there before," as my father pointed to some houses in a wood where he used to hunt rabbits. Peterman grew up in Pennsylvania, too. About a year and a half ago, when she got tired of just watching as rural landscapes disappeared beneath bulldozers, Peterman began what would become her honors thesis.

"I complained about development a lot," says Peterman. "Every time I went home I would come across something new. Finally, my father got tired of hearing me complain and told me to do something about it."

When I asked her how she was able to turn her personal interest into her honors thesis, she just said, "I got lucky."

It's got nothing to do with luck. During her sophomore year, Peterman took a graduate course about the Spring Creek watershed. In that course she learned how development affects an ecosystem and how a region might plan less harmful forms of development. After the course, Peterman was interested in putting planned development into practice.

signs in front of grass

She researched the impacts of development and effective alternatives. She then spoke with county officials and newspapers, and eventually, she spoke at public meetings. Peterman gave slide shows that illustrated the effects of uncontrolled development, and she presented information provided by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. For the most part, Peterman spoke with the intention of sparking interest within the communities and motivating grass roots organizations.

Sixty years ago, the Susquehanna must have been a beautiful river. It still is, even though route 322 winds along its eastern bank, from Harrisburg to Duncannon. Along that stretch of highway, there isn't a bit of river land that's been left in peace.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is slated to begin improvements to that highway. River Route they call it. The road runs between Cumberland and Dauphin Counties north into Perry County, which until now has been spared the heavy development of its neighbors—not because of superior planning or zoning ordinances, but by virtue of inaccessibility. The improved highway could open Perry County to the same kind of uncontrolled development that has occurred in Cumberland and Dauphin—but it doesn't have to.

"We can be proactive," Peterman says. "We can ask ourselves what's good about our community, and plan to protect it by zoning." Zoning, or landuse regulation, specifies how a particular piece of land can be used. "To a lot of people, zoning is a bad word, and it's doubtful that anyone really likes the idea of zoning," Peterman says. She acknowledges that inappropriate zoning can have undesirable results, "but without zoning, we have no legal control over what development goes on around us."

With unregulated growth Peterman says, "Landscape disappears. With more people on less land, there's greater potential for groundwater contamination. Rural heritage is lost; historic buildings are often replaced by offices and convenience stores. Residential development requires increasing services like fire and police protection, street maintenance, public facilities, sewer and water, snow plows, garbage trucks, and more buildings and staff so that school districts can accommodate more children. Taxes go up."

Peterman tells the people that with unregulated development they can expect their entire way of life to change. Or, they can plan now and decide how and where development will occur. As a result of Peterman's work, some townships in Perry County have formed committees and taken the first steps toward planning.

Debra Peterman received a B.S. in biology from the Eberly College of Science and the Schreyer Honors College in May 1998. She will receive her master's degree in ecology in May of 1999. Her adviser for her rural development thesis is Kelleann Foster, R.L.A., associate professor of landscape architecture, College of Arts and Architecture, 210 Engineering Unit D, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-8133;

Last Updated January 10, 2014