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Town Weds Single Tax, Crafts Movement in Quest for Utopia

Lifestyle: Residents, mostly artisans, of Arden, Del., pay levy on commonly held land, not on buildings. Planners are beginning to study neo-traditional village.

January 04, 1998|JAY APPERSON | BALTIMORE SUN

ARDEN, Del. — About midway between Wilmington and Philadelphia, scarcely a minute's drive from the interstate highway that is Main Street for the megalopolis, lies a woodsy world built on utopian dreams.

Here, in the hamlet of Arden, artisans forge their livings from slabs of Pennsylvania basalt and spindles of Honduran mahogany. Children frolic in a greenbelt dubbed Sherwood Forest, while their parents march across village greens to stage sold-out performances of Shakespearean classics in the community's amphitheater.

Residents govern themselves in New England-style town meetings, enforcing a unique charter that is the legacy of a largely forgotten economist. In Arden, no resident owns the land surrounding his bungalow or cottage, but everyone pools money to pay the county real estate taxes.

This peculiar lifestyle, so counter to much of the mid-Atlantic's faceless suburban sprawl, is shaped by the curious marriage of two 19th-century philosophies: an economic theory called the "single tax" and the social doctrine known as the arts and crafts movement. Those who have embraced Arden's way of life since its founding nearly a century ago have always drawn skeptical notice from outsiders.

"We're not only Communists, we're anarchists and nudists," says Beverly Barnett, who has lived in Arden for more than two decades. "I can't think of a name that hasn't been said."

Although Arden residents say that whispered suggestions of free love and radical politics were always untrue--or at least wild exaggerations--they do see themselves as unconventional, forward thinkers whose ideas may not be so off the wall.

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Consider: In several localities these days, officials are embracing versions of the single-tax theory--which favors taxing land, rather than buildings--in an effort to spur development.

And planners throughout the nation are urging a rejection of typical suburban subdivisions and a return to "neo-traditional" villages. For some, Arden is the embodiment of such a place.

"It's a revolt against the typical suburban nothingness," says Aaron Hamburger, a retired chemical engineer from DuPont's Wilmington headquarters and president of the Arden Club, the community's social hub. "Maybe we can serve as a model or laboratory for other folks."

The cornerstone of the Arden lifestyle is the single-tax theory. The principle, advanced more than a century ago by economist and philosopher Henry George, holds that land and only land should be taxed. To tax homes, factories or other fruits of man's labor is a disincentive to ingenuity and efficiency.

Arden was founded in 1900 by sculptor Frank Stephens and architect Will Price, two "Georgists" from Philadelphia who set out to show how one town could operate under the single-tax system. An abandoned 162-acre farm in the Brandywine Valley was purchased, and Arden was born.

From day 1, Arden homeowners have leased their lots from a nonprofit trust that owns all the town's land. In the decades that followed, two neighboring communities, Ardentown and Ardencroft, were developed under similar systems.

That's not to say that everyone who has moved here--including many white-collar professionals hungry for a sense of sharing and community--knows precisely what they have bought into.

"Even though 75% of the residents in the town don't understand the single tax, it still makes the town what it is," says Mark Taylor, a woodworker from Arden who has studied Henry George's theories. His girlfriend, Sadie Somerville, an art gallery owner, says the system encourages neighbors to bond. For instance, residents gather at the Arden Club for Saturday night dinners most weeks of the year.

"People have a better sense of being together and sharing," she says. "If you don't, you have your own yard, your own pool, your own dog, and you don't go beyond your border."

Hamburger, the Arden Club president, says artists continue to make up a large portion of the population. A census a few years ago showed that as many as 70 are among its residents.

This influence can be seen in many Arden homes, whose owners treat them as works of art.

Rachel Grier-Reynolds lives in one of the oldest, a bungalow dubbed "The Monastery." When she and her husband moved in, they painted the window trim royal blue and aqua, inspired by the seas of Bermuda.

She then painted the ceiling of her front porch with metallic blue auto body paint and yellow stars, to remind her of the big skies of her childhood home at the Delaware seashore. She plans to add pieces from a shattered mirror to further the illusion of night sky.

"To me, that's the fun of having [the house], making it unique to me," she says. "It is an artistic statement."

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