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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 2 -- SPRING 2002
 

John Clark, Developer and Beautiful Dreamer Looks to the "End of the Day"

By Karen O'Keefe

Witness a timeless moment on the Rappahannock River ...

From the shore, on a breezy, oddly warm day in January, the river is a wide, placid flow. Its banks are sheltered by tall, rustling grasses; winter-grayed trees and shrubs are gently ruffled by the wind.

One hundreds yards upstream, the river is ridden by a bobbing gaggle of geese. A few sticks and branches, bleached ashen by the water have gained purchase on the river's hard-packed brown edge; a couple of shells from a mussel-type mollusk are visible, moving slightly in the water. Suddenly, the sounds of breeze and water are supplanted by the great beating and whir of a hundred spread wings. The geese are reaching for the sky, seemingly leaning up and forward from the water. In a great splashing and honking, they launch into the sky. They fly away then, in a mysterious formation that is poetic geometry.

In two or three timeless heartbeats, the geese are gone, taking with them the chaos and the beauty of their moment of flight.

The river returns to a sort of gurgling serenity - overlaid only by the occasional splash caused by something unseen and the sweep of breeze in rushes, shrubs and trees.

This place, this eternal scene that has repeated thousands of times in this place, is part of Haymount - a soon-to-be-developed traditional town of more than 1,600 acres, part of which is sited along three miles of the tidal Rappahannock River in Caroline County, Virginia.

Developer John Clark is the man who dreamed up Haymount. Clark has worked tirelessly (with the financial backing of his partners, realtors W.C & A.N. Miller Co. of Washington, D.C.) for almost 15 years to bring Haymount to fruition. According to Clark, who surveys the scene of geese and flowing water from the riverbank with the pride of a man gazing tenderly at his newborn child, this portion of the tidal Rappahannock looks pretty much as it did hundreds of years ago when its sole human inhabitants were Anaskenoan Indians.

There is no litter, no twisted plastic things of unknown purpose or origin floating half-submerged in the water, no broken glass, no mashed beer cans shoved into underbrush.

Clark is determined to see it stay that way.

A self-described "free spirit," John Clark is a Washington D.C.-based environmentalist and developer. He has been slowly but surely chipping at all the barriers in the path of his dream - including other environmentalists - for almost a decade and a half. But he has never given up or even lost sight of his dream - so strong is his commitment to his concept of an environmentally sound, socially grounded, pedestrian-oriented, productive community that is a sound financial venture for investors as well.

Clark feels that today he is on the verge of seeing the Haymount dream to fruition. The plans and approvals are in hand, and, he says - finally, finally - the financing is nearly so. He has had to work hard to convince investors to accept that Haymount, for all its idealistic goals and its progressive environmental approach to water and land use, recycling, building, design, agriculture - the list goes on and on - is also an excellent investment.

"Haymount [is many good things] but it is not a philanthropic venture," Clark explains. "It's a sound business proposition and it will [yield] solid returns to investors."

Clark credits internationally known new urbanist architects and town planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk for much of the inspiration behind Haymount. He was reading about the Duany Plater-Zyberk designed community of Seaside in Florida when he experienced what he describes as the Great "Aha!" Moment. He saw the opportunity to marry the "things I believe socially and environmentally" with the principles of new urbanism.

Which is not to say that Clark feels there is no room for improvement in the new urbanist movement. "There is lots lacking," he says. "We are remiss not to acknowledge that.

"The real success of this [new urbanist] movement has been to mainstream community walkability. However, by and large, so far, it's been a high-end movement, financed by the upper middle class."

John Clark does not turn his back on the problems that are either the causes or the effects of extreme economic disparity. Within Caroline County, he has proven to be an active citizen, as an individual and a business owner, in addressing problems of the entire community.

John Clark likes to use the term, "at the end of the day," as in "when we get to the bottom line," or "when it's all said and done," - and other phrases of that ilk. In the years since he first set eyes on the Haymount acreage, there have been many victorious "end(s) of the day(s)" for Clark. Some of those "days" were 24 hours long. Whether it was convincing the reluctant owner of the Haymarket land to buy Clark's dream and sell him the land, whether it was environmentalists, county councilors or judges - some of Clark's "days" took weeks, some took months - others still have gone on for years.

But, finally it appears that Clark - at the end of one day very soon - will see the first spade break the ground of Haymount. People will be living there, he says, 18 months later. Including him.

Clark's evolution as an environmentalist started at home. He spent his childhood summers on the Chesapeake. His family's ethic so treasured the beauty of the outdoors, it didn't occur to John or his siblings not to pick up any trash they encountered.

He nurtures his environmentalism by reading - today a book a week - and going at least as far back as 1962. "Who wasn't affected by Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring'?" he asks as though incredulous that everyone is not an avid environmentalist.

Clark went on to nurture an interest in active and passive solar energy. He went into the homebuilding business at one time with an established builder; at another time he founded a building business with a carpenter friend.

"It became clear to me that there was a time," he says, possibly around 1965, "where the craft of building shelter in this country changed. We went from building durables to building consumables."

For the most part, he says, it's been downhill ever since.

"As consumers, we are temporary inhabitants of space. We view our housing in three to five-year increments.

"There is no sense of ownership of the space you belong in. We've come to experience [our homes] as kind of a time share."

Clark practices his beliefs that progressive environmentalism and design principles can enrich the quality of human life in more places than Haymarket.

In mid-February, he will go to California to participate in a "Sustainable Settlement Charrette Rethinking Encampments for Refugees and Displaced Populations" sponsored by The United Nations, the International Red Cross, and the Rocky Mountain Institute - an entrepreneurial, nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to create a more secure, prosperous, and life-sustaining world.

Clark is a member of the Site Planning, Construction and Shelter working group team. They will focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"I'm just a participant," he says modestly. In addition to devising these communities, "what we are really trying to do is restore the land in the area of [where] the camp [was] so when they leave, they leave the land better than when they found it."

It sounds extraordinary - and a lot like his plans for Haymount. However, there's every sign that, "at the end of the day" - in Haymount and in Afghanistan - that's exactly what John Clark will do.