American Times: Washington - Locals' last stand for green spot with a m ucky pond

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IN THE secluded western suburbs of Washington, not a million miles from the CIA headquarters at Langley, it's not presidential sex that gets them going, but "sprawl". Urban sprawl is the newly appointed Public Enemy Number One, and nothing exemplifies the fight against it better than McLean's last stand for Evans Farm.

For a month, the local press has trumpeted the cause of the 24-acre tract on the edge of the upmarket Virginia suburb of McLean. What caused the rush of media concern was a report that Ralph Evans, whose family has owned the farm for half a century, was about to sell up, and out, to developers.

This rustic haven was about to be concreted over and absorbed into "the suburbs".

The people of McLean came forward as one to regale reporters with their fond recollections of Sunday visits to the farm, of feeding the ducks, of their delight in the only green space left for miles, of the haven that Evans Farm provided. Unable to afford a buy-out themselves, they wanted the county to buy the farm, or to slap a conservation order on it - anything to save it for "our children and their children, and their children".

My sympathies were with them all the way. In the 20 years since I first visited the Washington area, suburban development has blighted swathes of Maryland and northern Virginia. Thousands of acres of farmland have been built on and over. The landscape between Fairfax, to the south-west of Washington, and Baltimore, to the north-east, which had been rolling agricultural land, dotted with trees and white and red clapboard barns, is no more.

Now, after a decade that has seen some of the most intensive development anywhere in the United States, it is the beneficiaries of the building who are starting to call "foul". Hooray, I thought. And it was in such a joyous frame of mind that I set off for Evans Farm.

How wrong can you be. Evans Farm is a last vestige of green space, but is hardly holding the line against development. It is surrounded on every side by housing developments or roads.

Inside the farm fence, the whinneying of the horses is drowned out by the constant roar of cars. The duckpond could do with a clean, but had nothing on the henhouses, whose general state of decay would not disgrace an old Eastern-bloc zoo. The arable fields are less farm than market-garden, and neglected at that. And, always, the whoosh of those cars ...

Evans Farm has a "farm" restaurant and a clutch of shops - a gallery, and a "doll shoppe" where the prices run to hundreds of dollars. There were a few visitors, mainly nannies pushing their charges in prams. A couple of children patted the bristly pigs and quacked back at the ducks but they hardly represented a quorum of locals.

Ralph Evans says the restaurant, which uses the farm produce, does not make enough money to offset his taxes, and he does not qualify for "working- farm" tax breaks. "It's like a public park", he said, "except that I pay all the bills."

Mr Evans says he has agreed the number of houses that will be built and landscaping that will preserve the inn and the pond. That will jack up the prices of the finished houses nicely, so the developers cannot be too displeased.

But the fact is that the bulldozers, when they come, will be less the "fault" of Ralph Evans than the logical consequence of McLean's unrestrained growth. And the "Save Evans Farm" resistance movement that has posted hand-painted signs on the approach roads and packed a local school hall with protesters, has as much interest in property values, commuting times and a "free" local attraction as it does in the landscape.

In future, I will happily add my signature to petitions for the big wide spaces of Virginia and Maryland, but I cannot make a case for saving Evans Farm.