Washington stories: Maryland burns bright - but is this a green crime, or a white one?

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The Independent US

Fed up with surburban sprawl? The remedy is simple: torch it. That's what unknown vandals did on Monday to an upscale development at Indian Head, 25 miles south of Washington - burning down or damaging 26 houses under construction in one of the biggest residential arson attacks ever in these parts.

We haven't had a local whodunit like it since the DC snipers were at large a couple of years ago. All we know is that the $10m (£5.2m) rampage was a deliberate crime, carefully organised and certainly the work of more than one person. Eco-terrorism is the most popular explanation. The development encroached on a rare magnolia wetland and has long been a target of environmentalists. But the Earth Liberation Front, which certainly has form in the arson field, says it knows nothing about it, and if the police have a lead, they aren't saying.

As in all good mysteries, there are any number of possible motives. Some suspect local sportsmen, furious that an area rich in game and with a long hunting tradition has been laid waste for commuter homes worth $500,000 apiece. But then again, there are plenty of other places to hunt round here.

Or it could be an inside job, by construction workers with a grudge against their boss - or even by out-of-work navvies, with a somewhat unorthodox Christmas season job-creation programme. But that doesn't really add up either.

Most worrying of all, race might have something to do with it. Indian Head is in southern Maryland, where segregation once flourished. Many middle-class blacks have already moved into the area, and black families were set to move into some of the houses that have been destroyed. Could this be a white hate-crime? But police say they have had no reports of even minor racist incidents for a year now, while local residents scoff at the notion.

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One way or another, the Indian Head conflagration has illuminated one of the area's biggest problems - the unregulated suburban (or, rather, exurban) sprawl that eats into the beautiful mid-Atlantic countryside. Sprawl has just about joined up Washington and Baltimore, creating a traffic nightmare to rival Los Angeles.

Disaster is just one vote away. Barring an improbable rush of financial sanity on Tuesday, the DC council will give its final approval to a plan for a brand-new $600m downtown stadium to house our new baseball team.

If ever there was a triumph of sentimentality over common sense, this was it. Washington has never got over the loss of the Senators, its last baseball team, in 1971. Finally we've got one back. But at a cost of $600m, when DC is shutting down hospitals and skimping on its schools. The preliminary vote, in which three councillors abstained, was a 6-4 squeaker, producing a quote for the ages from Mayor Anthony Williams: "Every major project in history has had a close vote," he proclaimed. "The College of Cardinals' vote for the Sistine Chapel was probably close. They probably had a close vote for the pyramids." Well maybe - but even at $600m, our new stadium won't be around in 4,000 years' time and certainly isn't designed by Michelangelo.

What we're actually getting is a trendy "retro-look" ballpark that will probably be pulled down in 20 or 30 years, when some other architectural style becomes the rage. Great value, I'm sure you'll agree.

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Has the outcome of the recent election spilled over into the area's seasonal decorations? Washington DC (which voted 90 per cent for John Kerry) is less festive than I ever remember. Maryland (57-43 Kerry) isn't much better. But on Wednesday I ventured across the Potomac for a drinks party in Alexandria, in heavily Republican Virginia. The gorgeous Christmas lights made Regent Street look shabby.