At 7:45 a.m. on July 1, Jim Weaver, his intern, Chelsea Eggleston, and I leave his office in the Courthouse and cut across the Green for a meeting of the planning committee of the Tioga County Partnership for Community Health. We’re in a hurry; Jim’s a busy guy. Not only does he work 70 hours a week as the county planner, he’s also a farmer, an environmentalist, and an outdoorsman; he has “more hats than I have heads for.”

Still, Jim is attentive to many layers of detail: as we veer across the Green, Jim simultaneously guides me to the Partnership building—a restored Victorian home on the northeast corner of the Green—updates me on the agenda for this meeting, tells me about the “suits” I’ll see at the next meeting, and points out a small pile of dog doo nestled in the dewy grass. I manage to avoid it, and we cross the street to find Deb Atkins, the Partnership’s executive director, sweeping leaves off the porch steps. In the conference room, Chelsea passes me a meeting agenda that features a quote from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”

Nine people sit around a long conference table in a sunny, slope-ceilinged yellow room. Jim begins the meeting by asking everyone to tell the group, “who are you, where have you come from, and where are you going?” The question reflects Jim’s orientation toward understanding the past and planning long into the future, rather than responding to immediate exigencies.

Jim tells the group, “Ninety percent of our problems are Tioga County problems”—problems that preceded the natural gas boom and that he feels have only been highlighted or exacerbated by the pressure of rapid development. As Jason Weigle, a planning committee member and PhD candidate in rural sociology at Penn State tells me later, “these problems are the community’s responsibility—not the industry’s.” He contrasts his point of view with those who feel that the industry, or the state, should be responsible for mitigating all secondary impacts of the drilling.

Affordable housing is an example of one of the problems that Jason feels are the community’s responsibility. Jason explains that while rents have increased dramatically “sometimes two, three or four hundred percent” in response to the influx of outside workers brought in by the gas industry, affordable housing has long been an issue in the area. Housing costs are especially high in Wellsboro, a town that markets its historic charm—its gas lamps and village green–to vacationers and financially comfortable retirees who are drawn in not only by opportunities for outdoor recreation but by Wellsboro’s proximity to New York City. Jason explains: “Since the 1940s, the prices of real estate have risen nearly 330% after adjusting for inflation. Income has risen less than 50% over the same time frame… the real issue is a lack of housing units of an affordable nature, which drives residents to find the cheapest alternative, even if it means driving 30 to 40 miles a day, living with family, or not having a home at all.” The Marcellus shale gas development has further “muddied up” the already complex problem of affordable housing in Tioga County.

So instead of talking about problems that the Marcellus shale development has made more apparent, such as affordable housing or disintegrating roads, planning committee members try to “ask the right questions” to work toward broader goals and develop a holistic vision for the county’s future. Listening to the committee’s conversation requires a tolerance for abstract ideas like “quality of life,” for lofty goals like a vision of a community where “decisions are based on the welfare of all citizens,” for metaphors like “mind map” and—I never understood this one—“a wheelbarrow full of frogs.”

The goal of the planning committee, as Jim has explained to me, is to “use the Marcellus as a catalyst to have bigger conversations about quality of life” and “community health and all the facets of it, human health, environmental health, social issues, poverty.” The task of the planning committee is to turn the invisible gas trapped in the shale into a metaphor, to turn the energy burned up in a power plant into the energy to develop a long-term vision for a sustainable future. This long-term vision will be developed in its own good time, rather than at the rapid pace of industry; as Jim reminds the group, “industry is fast—government is slow.”

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