Every time a national news show features a Lancaster County story, you can bet before you see the video that it will include at least one shot of a horse and buggy.
Stereotypes are deceiving. The modern picture of Lancaster County isn't so much the horse-drawn buggy rolling down a farm lane as it is the SUV stuck in a line of traffic outside a development of McMansions in the suburbs.
For the last couple of decades, Lancaster County has been a boom town. Politicians liked to point out that the county was growing by nearly 5,000 people a year, meaning that the Garden Spot was adding another Manheim or Mount Joy annually. New census figures are expected to show the county officially passing the half-million mark in population.
The Great Recession might have changed all that.
As the Sunday News reported last week, the pace of residential building permits has been halved by the nationwide economic doldrums. While more than 2,000 construction permits were issued in 2002 and in 2003, just 1,045 were granted in 2009.
And the slowdown appears to be continuing in 2010.
Given the economic crash of the last two years, the erosion of Lancaster County's building boom isn't surprising. Much of the county's population growth has been concentrated in townships that were rapidly being transformed into suburbs for commuters driving to work in Philadelphia, in Baltimore, in Harrisburg. Now, with gas prices higher, with salaries shrinking and with more homeowners' mortgages under water, fewer people have the wherewithal to pick up stakes and move to scenic Lancaster County.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Perhaps it's a little of both.
In the 1990s, "growth" and "sprawl" became dirty words in the county. The love of new home construction was seen as the root of all kinds of evil.
But no growth is just as bad as too much growth. When no new homes are being built, when no new people are moving in, a community stagnates - and dies.
Perhaps this slowdown in construction, which presumably translates into a slowdown in the rate of population growth, gives countians some breathing room. Time to regroup. Space to think.
A chance to ask questions like: What are we becoming?
Is our population growth accompanied by growth in new, sustainable-wage jobs, or are we just becoming a bedroom community for people fleeing exurban congestion?
Has the building boom overpriced land to the point that farming, that mainstay of our economy, is becoming untenable, and to the point that construction of entry-level housing is financially impossible?
Have some municipalities really hurt residential construction by forcing developers to pay for too many infrastructure improvements - as one person suggested in the Sunday News story - or have municipalities failed to hold developers responsible for the impact their new homes are having on quality of life, especially traffic?
Are urban growth boundaries, the centerpiece of the county's growth management plan, working as intended, or does the concept need tweaking?
How much farmland are we willing to pave over? Is there a tipping point -or did we pass the tipping point years ago?
One township manager suggested in last week's story that in terms of home construction, Lancaster County might never see the glory years again. Maybe not. But if the pace does pick up as the economy recovers, we'd better be ready.
Let's not waste our breathing room. Take a deep breath. Now, as a community, let's ask - and answer - the tough questions.