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Wayne Smith and Bob Weiner help raise funds to buy parkland

Arden: As they like it
Snug by leafy Sherwood Forest, the villagers of Arden fight development, rescue rare species and promote social harmony
Staff reporter

In the early 1990s, Lynda Kolski was living in a town house in Chadds Ford, Pa. The yard was too small for her dog, Riley.

While house-hunting north of Wilmington with the Labrador-mix in mind, she was smitten by an Old English-style house deep in the woods. The house was in a village of about 240 homes nestled off a lace of slim roads and walking paths. Its ample yard, trees and bushes were any dog's dream.

That's how they found Arden.

"Completely by accident," Kolski says. "I've lived here about 10 years and I'm a relative newcomer. We have families that go back several generations."

What draws most residents is a distinctive style of life in the commune-like village that was started as a summer artists' colony of tents, drawing inspiration from nature, political radicals and Shakespeare.

Arden and the nearby villages of Ardentown and Ardencroft, created largely to promote integration, have been recognized as the nation's only nonreligious Utopian enclave to exist for more than a century.

Other Arden distinctions are self-government and direct democracy, and a philosophy that villagers will rise to fill the community need. For instance, villagers worked for decades to get the Ardens listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They succeeded last year.

Kolski and other residents recently rose to another cause.

They prevented development of land next to the village forest by buying the site, where they said construction would hurt quality of life in the Ardens. Kolski said preserving the habitat of two species not found elsewhere in Delaware - the leafy liverwort and the carnivorous harvester butterfly - came as "an amazing bonus."

Shakespeare's shadow

Long before she got involved in saving the forest, Kolski enjoyed learning about the Ardens. Kolski learned her house was historic, designed by Will Price, an architect who helped sculptor Frank Stephens create Arden on a 160-acre farm off Harvey Road.

Kolski also learned they named Arden for the town in Shakespeare's "As You Like It," calling the woods Sherwood Forest for the play's mystical setting.

Tom Wheeler, another resident, says the founders were political radicals who used public speaking to promote the ideals of activist-journalist Henry George. George said the social injustice of poverty could end if land was owned collectively and people were taxed on the land they used - a system employed in Arden.

"The Shakespeare connection really gives the Ardens a sense of place," Kolski says, as does the fact that the founders kept half the village as open space, including Sherwood Forest.

"It's where we go for inspiration," says resident Beverly Barnett. The development project would have razed the land, diverted a stream, displaced wildlife, caused erosion and ruined Sherwood Forest as a quiet wildlife habitat, she said. "It would have destroyed Arden," Barrett says. "Nothing would have been the same."

Construction also would have taken the joy out of walking in Arden, residents say. Ardenites walk slim, tree-covered paths to each other's homes, to traditional Saturday suppers, the library, the pool, meetings of clubs or "gilds" that run activities and events at The Gild Hall and Buzz Ware Village Center.

Wheeler says Ardenites' habit of walking shows closeness to the environment, as does their avid gardening and some resident artists' creations made from objects found in nature. In keeping with the founders' philosophy, all nonresidential space is available for use by the general public, not just Ardenites - a point that became crucial.

Kolski remembers being disappointed when neighbors told her the forest had been threatened by development for decades before she and Riley even arrived.

Saving Sherwood Forest

In the 1970s, investor Marsha Avery had bought the five-acre parcel adjoining Arden next to Sherwood Forest and first proposed a day-care center there. Later, the proposal changed to building houses. New Castle County signed off in 1986 on a plan for 18 homes, according to land-use officials.

Ardenites checked into buying the site before the owner found a developer for the project, but the asking price was $1.8 million, Kolski says. With no hope of raising that kind of money, Ardenites could do little but worry.

Then the development plan stalled and the county's plan approval expired. When the land was offered again for development in the 1990s, Ardenites rallied.

Kolski became chair of a task force, which included Wheeler, Barnett and others who spent years trying to find a way to buy the site.

Two years ago, Arden got a state environmental grant to have experts document the forest's plant and animal populations, a project residents had wanted to do for many years.

That was how biologist-consultant Jim White, associate director of the Delaware Nature Society, found the carnivorous butterfly and botanist Bill McAvoy, of the state's Delaware Natural Heritage Program, found the leafy liverwort, a moist-forest plant named for its liver-shaped parts.

In the parcel marked for development, White said he found scores of harvester butterflies, the only carnivorous butterfly found in North America, but never documented in Delaware before. The larvae feed on aphids found on beech and alder trees, he says.

With the discoveries White called "environmentally significant," the forest-preservation effort gained steam. It won support from the nature group and former governor Russell W. Peterson, past president of the National Audubon Society and a former Arden resident.

Because Arden's open space is open to the general public, Rep. Wayne Smith, County Executive Tom Gordon and New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner helped get grants toward a newly negotiated sale price of $850,000.

State and county lawmakers each agreed to provide a third if Arden paid a third and settlement costs. The task force turned to the Arden Savings & Loan and its elected resident-president, Alton Dahl, who helped work out a plan: The bank would lend Arden its share, but the only way to repay the loan would be to raise taxes.

Even with donations from Ardentown, Ardencroft, grants, benefit events and a fund-raising campaign, Arden still needed to finance about $150,000 or raise taxes an average of about $80 for 15 years.

The vote was set for March.

Task-force members asked residents to get out and vote, regardless of their opinions. Low turnout could spell defeat; any vote not cast counts as a no vote and majority rules. Several members feared the financial burden might be too much for many residents, especially those on fixed incomes.

"Because of the taxes," Kolski says, "we knew it could be a close vote."

On voting day, turnout was high, topping 80 percent. And votes ran more than 10 to 1 for buying the forest. The sale papers were signed April 30.

Bill Theis, whose back yard abuts the woods, was relieved. "Saving Sherwood Forest saved Arden," he says.

Beverly Barnett also says the forest-preservation success proves the founders' belief that villagers can accomplish near-impossible tasks by rising to meet village needs and pulling together.

And Kolski said she is happy she could help protect an inspirational treasure for coming generations in the old-fashioned community.

"We knew we would have only one chance to save the forest," she said. "And we did it."

Kolski and others now have turned their attention to other efforts, such as renovating the Buzz Ware Village Center, opening a museum in the Ardens' old craft shop that supported early artists and planning paths in the new addition to Sherwood Forest.

Reach robin brown at 324-2856 or

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