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Tensions flare as exurbia gains ground near D.C.

LA PLATA, Md. -- The smell of charred wood wafted over the Hunters Brooke development Sunday afternoon in the burgeoning exurbia of the nation's capital like the residue of a giant fireplace left untended.

Every weekend, hundreds of Washington-area residents head out on Maryland Routes 5 and 301, past 25 miles of Sam's Clubs and Mattress Marts, to buy reasonably priced castles in developments with Old English names like Kingsview, Earnshaw Estates, and Wexford Village.

In the process, they push the boundaries of Greater Washington farther and farther into farmland and historic tracts, like a belly spilling over a neatly tailored pair of pants.

But last week, someone set an entire neighborhood-to-be ablaze, methodically starting fires in more than 20 nearly completed luxury homes, demolishing 12 and damaging 30 more in the conflagration that followed.

The mystery of the arson attack, by far the largest in state history, could become as much an emblem of these times as past crimes like the Rodney King beating and the Louise Woodward au pair murder trial exposed the social traumas and resentments of earlier eras.

Federal and state authorities are investigating a range of possibilities, almost all of them related to the growth of the American exurbia -- distant suburbs that are popping up around metropolitan areas, providing large new homes at affordable prices but pushing the boundaries of sprawl. Among the theories cited in The Washington Post: an attack by ''ecoterrorists" because the development was built atop a bog that is home to rare plants; a resentful subcontractor; a revolt by local residents upset about yuppies taking over the once-rural community; and racial anger because Charles County is predominantly white and many of the Washingtonians moving in are black.

The scale of the crime, in which no one was injured but dozens were traumatized, suggests someone's desire to make a big statement: The only question is what the statement is and what it says about the tensions surrounding American exurbia.

Those tensions are social as well as political. The term ''exurb" was rarely heard during the recent presidential campaign, but it was on the lips of most political consultants, as shorthand for a range of issues that could move people very strongly because the issues literally hit them where they live. And while statistics are unreliable because of the lack of precise definitions, all agree that millions of Americans have moved to exurbia over the past four years and represent a new political force. But so, too, does the growth of exurbia raise political concerns among others, including environmentalists and longer-term residents of towns being swallowed up by development.

To many eyes, sprawl threatens to blight the American landscape, and the types of developments popular in exurbia -- four- and five-bedroom homes built on lots of a quarter-acre or more -- are a prime culprit. Each development churns up land and is quickly matched by crowded highways full of services, from multiplex cinemas and Wal-Marts to chain restaurants and muffler shops. The ''smart growth" movement seeks to preserve open land and build compact developments clustered around old-fashioned town centers.

Meanwhile, the length of the commutes between job centers and exurbs contributes to US dependence on foreign oil, spurs the destruction of greenhouse gases, and saps the energy of American workers. And many residents whose towns become high-growth exurbs argue that the character and identity of the community are diminished.

But many conservatives look at the exurbs and detect the true spirit of the American dream -- young families of modest means seeking bigger homes and more comfortable lives. And conservatives think that many critics of the exurbs are using environmentalism as a cover for the snobbish aesthetic complaints of rich liberals in closer-in suburbs. The back cover of the book ''Bobos in Paradise" by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks asks the liberal critics of the exurbs: ''Do you believe that spending $15,000 on a media center is vulgar, but that spending $15,000 on a slate shower stall is a sign that you are at one with the Zen-like rhythms of nature?"

Charles County, Md., is the kind of place that makes some urbanites shake their heads in sorrow and some longtime residents yearn for the old days. ''It's so historical around here, and people have just left it alone," said Roy Cline, a resident of 18 years, pointing to a small group of volunteers who preserve the memory of General William Smallwood, a Revolutionary War hero who once owned much of the county. ''Then, just the last few years, everyone started coming, and it's taking the land."

But Charles County is also the kind of place where the opportunity to own a five-bedroom home like ''The Potomac" -- with family room, library, master suite, appliance island, and more -- for a little more than $400,000 seems like the fulfillment of a dream.

All politics may be local, as Tip O'Neill famously advised, but few political issues are as powerfully felt as those that strike so close to home.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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