Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rurality Then and Now, Here and There (Part V): "End of the World" or Rural Gentrification?

Not all housing developments or subdivisions in rural areas raise land prices significantly. In some cases, the developers don’t add a great deal of value – in terms of roads and other infrastructure – and so the cost per acre does not rise dramatically. In many cases, of course, farmers or other long-time land owners of large parcels simply don’t have the know-how or desire to subdivide their land and sell it off in lots, so they sell to a developer who takes care of these tasks while, of course, seeking a profit. Some of the developments we’ve seen in Amador, El Dorado, and Amador Counties are of this type. They may be more affordable, but they offer few amenities. In fact, I would put them in the “end of the world” instead the “rural gentrification” category, even though they are in “developments.”

I am not sure how to categorize the land involved in my first encounter with a rural subdivision: rural gentrification or end of the world? It was in my own beloved Newton County (AR). On the one hand, it was just a couple of miles from Jasper, the county seat. But, it was in one of the least densely populated counties in Arkansas, at least 80 miles from what was then becoming the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers MSA. It had electricity, but no water system at the time.

It happened like this: About 15 years ago, my grandfather sold to a land developer the several-hundred-acre chunk of the Pruitt family homestead that he had inherited a decade or two earlier. I had already been away from Newton County for some years and was living a very urban life in Europe. I remember saying to my folks then: “What do you mean land developer?” and “What do you mean they’re turning it into subdivision?” There weren’t any subdivisions in the entire county, as far as I knew, except the so-called Nance Addition, next to the school buildings in Jasper, the county seat. It had about a dozen houses, on lots that were perhaps a half acre or smaller.

In part, I was having trouble envisioning what we called the old sawmill place, the area where we had cut our firewood when I was a kid, as anything else. I also could not imagine who would buy these properties. People in Newton County generally didn’t have money to buy property, I realized. Most lived on land passed down to them by their parents, sometimes in the same homes in which they’d been raised or a new house built on another corner of the family’s property. When my folks told me that out-of-state newcomers would buy these lots, I was incredulous. Who would want to move to Newton County? This wasn’t, after all, Bella Vista or Hot Springs Village, with their golf courses and lakes and other amenities.

But the developers must have known their market. They bought the land and divided it into lots of 10 acres or more. They made a few improvements, adding some roads to the old logging road that had been there previously, but all remained gravel. They put a sign that said “Little Buffalo River Estates” at the main entrance into the “subdivision.” They planned a flower garden for that entrance, but it never materialized.

Sure enough, newcomers bought a lot of the property. So did one relatively affluent "local" family (who had moved to Newton County many years before and who ran a local motel and canoe rental service). Most buyers still have not, a decade on, done anything with their properties. I guess they see the purchases more as an investment, or aren’t yet ready to retire. Last time I was there, one retired couple from out of state had just finished constructing a very nice home and had moved in.

A few buyers defaulted on their loans, which had been carried by the land developer. The land developer was ready to move on to another project and just wanted to wrap up his Newton County venture. That permitted me to buy a couple of those “lots” – including the old sawmill site – at a better price.

At the time of my purchase, I was interested to find that a few covenants and restrictions had been imposed on the lots. Among them: no junk cars were allowed on the property. I was amused – and pleased. When my father – who dealt in heavy equipment and junk in his later years – subsequently used my land as a repository for some junk buses, I noted this restriction to him. He responded that the restriction was on junk cars, not junk buses. Such hair splitting led me to think that he might have had the makings of a lawyer, though he had neither the opportunity nor the temperament.

I also wondered if my father thought that was a winning legal argument. I realize now that he probably didn’t. More likely, he was counting on the fact that the restriction was irrelevant as a practical matter. No one was ever going to seek to enforce it.

And there, once again, is the effective absence of law, public or private, in rural places . . . or will that change with a burgeoning group of newcomers/out-of-staters?

1 comment:

Ian said...


Hey Lisa,

Thanks very much for tipping me off - great post.

I wonder if, in the current climate, that developer is still in business and
indeed how many of those sub-divisions have been defaulted on. Perhaps an
opportunity for you to regain the family 'pays'! I read that dear Rudy G.
has started a hedge or private equity fund dealing in distressed NY real
estate, so why not join him?

I made a short post from your email - swiped the bus photo, hope you don't
mind, but my wife has told me my farm blog needs more pictures! - and here
it is: http://farmblogs.blogspot.com/2008/07/rural-gentrification.html

I have so much to do, so little time, so if you can find a moment to drop me
a line when next on this topic, that would be great (I note we are both
attentive NYT readers and many of the stories you pick up, so do I on

I am really going to be head down into my next novel next year, and I just
can't keep up www.farmblogs.blogspot.com. beyond the end of this year. It
does however, have a good following and the basis of an excellent blogroll.
I was wondering if, in your academic network, you would be kind enough to
spread the word that I am looking for a bright student in the field of rural
issues/sociology/anthropology/whatever to take it on.

Indeed, I think the whole issue of how farmers are blogging, and why, how
they are using blogs and social networks would make a fascinating bachelor's
degree thesis or even master's topic for a student.

Would you be kind enough to put out some feelers to any academics (or indeed
students) in your network to see if we might not identify a student who is
seized by this topic? I have not yet come accross any literature myself in
the academic field about farming/rural blogging.

With kind regards,


P.S Now, re. this rural gentrification, have you read my book?!? It's not
pretty on this subject, at all, and I think you'd find the English narrative
fascinating. I can't imagine how much reading you have to do but if you want
to mix 'business' with 'pleasure' this might be the one for you: