How Much Land Does a Man Need is a short story written by Leo Tolstoy. The story’s protagonist, an ambitious peasant farmer named Pahom, is told he can have, without cost, all the land he can walk around in a day. The day is to end with the setting sun.
As the storied walk around the property unfolds, Pahom lingers briefly at the topographical turns. Should he try to go still further or make the turn which will bring him comfortably back to the start well before the sun sets?
Tempted by still more land, he keeps enlarging the boundaries and eventually struggles to beat the setting sun. In the end, exhausted from the run he drops dead. His servant buries him in an ordinary grave only six feet long, thus answering the question posed in the title of the story.
Boundaries, always an important question? Most importantly, as the November 8th election for the Talbot County Council approaches, what should the boundaries be in this sublime place we call home?
Council candidates on the November 8th ballot are being asked how they see our home. The question is wrapped up in a bureaucratic phrase called “land use.” The animating context is the Trappe development called Lakeside where a developer has plans for 2,500 homes.
In the final analysis, for us, this is a question about the soul or, if you prefer, the character of our county. But, for the home developer it is a question of scale. How many homes can I build on a plot of land?
Developer’s fixed costs (principally land acquisition, infrastructure development, professional fees) are recovered in the initial sale of lots and houses and then profit margins jump with each additional sale. The more homes the bigger the profits.
Companies that build housing developments do not build the roads that lead there nor the public utilities that must serve the homeowners. And then as the population grows, they don’t have to pay for added students in public schools, frontline workers, and the like. Governments too have fixed costs and tax revenue pay them.
The character of a town does not show up on a financial statement. Wooded acres turned into asphalt and buildings. Rivers and Bays often the last stage in waste treatment. Welcoming neighbors, becoming more cautious. Sirens more frequent. Intersections clogged. Swimming holes closed.
This year, starting with an Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) meeting between candidates for the Talbot County Council and persons involved in land use management, more attention is being focused on the health of our county. And kudos to Dan Watson who set up an organization called Talbot Integrity Project (TIP).
TIP created a bipartisan citizen panel; they asked each candidate about their perspective on growth. The panel recommended that voters select five of seven candidates, the candidates are Pete Lesher, Michelle Dappert, Keasha Haythe, Phil Jackson, Scott Kane, Lynn Mielke and David Montgomery. Additionally, David Montgomery has released a comprehensive review of issues that face the next Council—it is a revealing read.
Some will contend that the issue of “how much is too much” is a political issue to be handled by one of the two political parties. I think of it as our problem to be resolved by persons who understand and revere the character of our home. Persons who, unlike Pahom in How Much Land Does a Man Need, understand when too far is too far.
Our identity is fused with where we live. We, all of us, know about our liquid assets: the Choptank, Miles, Wye and Tred Avon rivers and their tributaries. Well, they are on the ballot because they are a critical part of our nature, not just nature.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.