Reading the interviews with Diamond’s Montana “focus group” was especially interesting for me. Many echoes of our situation in Northern Michigan.
Steve Powell, a former county commissioner in Ravalli County, Bitterroot Valley, MT:
I tell my real estate agent and developer friends, “You have to protect the beauty of the landscape, the wildlife, and the agricultural land” Those are the things that create property value. The longer we wait to do planning, the less landscape beauty there will be. Undeveloped land is valuable to the community as a whole: it’s an important part of that “quality of life” that attracts people here.
But this situation creates a dilemma. Many farmers who own that “undeveloped land” have no other pension than the potential sale of that land to developers at handsome prices, often in the neighborhood of one million dollars.
It’s hard for many people (including me, I admit) to feel sorry for farmers who are sitting on so much capital. We saw the effects of this resentment this past November here in Northern Michigan when a proposal to set up a program to buy development rights fell through in most of the places it was on the ballot. Regular folks just had a hard time setting up a government program to funnel tax money to farmers whom they considered to be rich opportunists. The farmers who stood to reap the biggest benefits were seen as real estate speculators with a means of making money (farming) while they waited for the right offer to come along.
And perhaps it takes an east-coast perspective to savor the irony that the development value of farmland in Montana and Michigan is predicated on some farmland going undeveloped. So whose farmland should become subdivisions and whose should remain marginally profitable farms? Which farmers should retire to collect interest and dividends on Marco Island and which should scrape along on whatever they could reap from selling a farm that is to remain a farm?
Not easy decisions to make. In fact decisions for which there is no real forum for discussion, no process–just a free-market race to get while the getting’s good. One wonders if Northern Michigan and Montana–two hotbeds of the delusional militia movement–can even imagine a way of solving a problem like this.
Steve Powell, summing up:
People are trying to preserve the Bitterroot as a rural community, but they can’t figure out how to preserve it in a way that would let them survive economically. . . . The fundamental problem here is how we hang on to these attractions that brought us to Montana, while still dealing with the change that can’t be avoided.
Here’s hoping that they, and we, can manage it. The big step seems to be getting to the point where you can acknowledge that there will be change, whether or not you may want it. The point is to shape the change in a way that produces a relatively desirable outcome.
Here in Michigan, in spite of all the change that’s happened already, in spite of the rise of a substantial (but still relatively small) urban area in and around Traverse City, despite all the ugliness (strip malls and the usual random roadside development) that has already happened because people let change happen to them rather than making it happen in a more acceptable fashion–in spite of all this, people still seem to think that the best response to growth is to cover their ears, close their eyes and shout “no, no, no.”
Unfortunately we’ve already seen what that “strategy” gets us.