Monday, May 31, 2021

Jim Crow in rural California?

The Los Angeles Times Brittany Mejia reports today from Sierra County, California, population 3,240, under the headline "A fight over Jim Crow Road divides rural Northern California town."  Here's the lede, out of Downieville, population  2,966
As the story goes, a Native Hawaiian man came as a Gold Rush pioneer to a mountainous swath of Sierra County to strike it rich.

His name was given to a ravine, a stream and a street off scenic Highway 49, three miles east of Downieville, Calif. That’s how Jim Crow Canyon, Jim Crow Creek and Jim Crow Road came to be.

Generations later, people who own property along the less-than-a-mile-long road, including a small mountain resort, say that Jim Crow has got to go.

In April, their pleas sparked a proposal before the Sierra County Board of Supervisors to consider renaming the road.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Housing prices surging in exurban/suburban areas, but is this a rural phenomenon?

Several major publications have run stories on this phenomenon in recent weeks, and I am acknowledging the trend here because many will view these places as rural, though I'd tend to classify them as exurban, if not suburban.  The demand by urban dwellers for homes outside the city is driven in part by pandemic life, by families cooped up as they have been compelled to work and go to school from home.   

Conor Dougherty and Ben Casselman report for the New York Times from Lathrop, California, population  18,023, in southern San Joaquin County.  The headline is "House Hunters are Leaving the City, and Builders Can't Keep Up."   Here's an excerpt:  

Tired of being cooped up, eager to take advantage of low interest rates and increasingly willing to move two or more hours from the urban core, buyers have propelled new home construction to its highest level since 2006. That was the year when the mid-2000s housing bubble started deflating on its way to what would become the financial crisis and Great Recession.

The Economist reports from France here under the headline, "The hidden side to French suburban living."  Here's an excerpt:


Cutting through farmland in a regional nature park, the approach to La Chapelle-en-Vexin is dominated not by its 12th-century chapel but by newly built two-storey homes. With their dormer windows, sloping tiled roofs and neatly hedged gardens, houses on such lotissements offer a French version of American suburban life: play space for children, a deck for the barbecue, and—crucially—off-street parking. In this village of just 333 inhabitants, an off-plan three-bedroom house with a garage is on sale for €260,000 ($320,000)—the same as a gloomy bedsit in central Paris.

The place featured is 40 miles from Paris.  

Finally, Candace Taylor reported for the Wall Street Journal from exurban Philadelphia. The headline is "Real Estate Frenzy Overwhelms Small Town America:  'I Came Home Crying.'" Here's an excerpt: 

Local buyers bid against one another as well as against investors who now comprise about a fifth of annual home sales nationally. Online platforms such as BiggerPockets and Fundrise make it easier for out-of-town investors to buy real estate in smaller cities across the U.S., said John Burns of California-based John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

Often, Mr. Burns said, “the cash flows are better in the Tulsas and Allentowns of the world” for those seeking to rent out properties. In the fourth quarter of 2020, nearly a fifth of homes sold in the Allentown area were bought by investors .... 

All of this reminded me of a January, 2021 story from my hometown newspaper, the Newton County Times.  The headline was "Moving trucks, trailers keep coming one way."  James White reports for the Harrison Daily Times, the sister paper based in neighboring Boone County, population 36,903.  The county seat is Harrison, population 12,943, and I'd say it is a rural area.  Here's the lede: 

There are dozens of U-Haul trucks parked around town.  The owner of the local franchise said that's unusual, but they're all coming one way.  He thinks it's got a lot to do with the pandemic and how it has changed the country. 

Jeff Crockett said the people renting trucks and trailers in other locations from diverse states--Colorado, California, Florida, North Carolina--are moving to the area.  No return trip is booked.  

How does he know they are moving? 

"With conversations we have in the office when they drop them off," he said.

People say they want to get away from the big cities.  The COVID-19 Pandemic has taught them something:  They can work from anywhere with internet access and no longer need to live within driving distance of the office building. 

The story then segues to local housing stock:  

Jeff Pratt, Harrison city clerk, owner of Jerry Jackson Realty and a member of the Harrison Board of Realtors, agreed the housing market in the area is an issue.  

Pratt said the Board of Realtors' multiple-county coverage area listed 136 residential properties for sale last week, about half of which were in Boone County. 

A couple of years ago, that cumulative number would have been 600.

"Our inventory is gone," Pratt said.

Houses selling for under $200,000 tend to leave the market almost as soon as listed.  

Of the 71 residential properties in Boone County, 12 were under $100,000; 27 fall into the $100,000 to $200,000 category; and 32 were priced over $200,000.  

Sometimes potential buyers in other states can't get here fast enough when a property in the area is listed.  A buyer in California might not be able to make flight arrangements to Boone County to look at a potential property before it sells. 

So, the property is shown via Zoom.  In some cases, the buyers make offers on a piece of real estate they've never even seen. 

The story does not indicate whether house prices are rising in the area.  

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Seeking federal recognition of Mono Lake Tribe

The Los Angeles Times' Louis Sahagun reports from Lee Vining, population 222, in the Eastern Sierra's Mono County, population 14,000:  

They were expert hunters, gatherers and basket weavers who lived for thousands of years on a trade route over the Sierra Nevada connecting them with the rest of California.

The modern history of the Mono Lake Kutzadika Paiute people is told mostly through economic hardship, displacement and a 150-year fight for federal recognition as a distinct Native American tribe — a step needed to establish a sovereign land base to call home.

Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) on Saturday ventured into their lunar-like ancestral landscape of bizarre craggy formations, dormant volcanoes and jagged peaks and delivered good news during an emotional meeting with leaders of the tribe whose members have dwindled from 4,000 to 83.

Obernolte said he plans to introduce a bill Tuesday asking Congress to extend federal recognition to the tribe.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

More NYT coverage of rural, this time from central and far northern California

I'm feeling like a broken record recently, but I want to highlight two more stories out of rural America--specifically "rural" California.  

The first is out of Weed, in Siskiyou County, which borders Oregon.  Thomas Fuller reports under the headline, "No Longer the ‘Devil’s Lettuce’: How the Town of Weed Embraced Weed."  The subhead is "For decades, a rural California city winced at the puns. Now it’s cashing in."   Weed's population is 2967, and Siskiyou County's population is 44,900.   

Another recent post out of Weed is here, and the last time Weed was in the New York Times is here, about water wars. 

"Water wars" is a good segue to the second story, which is about how parts of the Central Valley are literally sinking.  The headline for today's story by Lois Henry is "The Central California Town that Keeps Sinking."  Here's an excerpt: 

Over the past 14 years, the town has sunk as much as 11.5 feet in some places — enough to swallow the entire first floor of a two-story house and to at times make Corcoran one of the fastest-sinking areas in the country, according to experts with the United States Geological Survey.

Subsidence is the technical term for the phenomenon — the slow-motion deflation of land that occurs when large amounts of water are withdrawn from deep underground, causing underlying sediments to fall in on themselves.

Corcoran's population is 24,813.  It is in the far eastern part of Kings County, population 152,892.  This story was co-published in High Country News

P.S.  Another big NYT water story out of the west, this one dateline Klamath Falls, California, is here.  It is reported by Mike Baker and published on June 1, 2021.  Here's the lede:  

Through the marshlands along the Oregon-California border, the federal government a century ago carved a whole new landscape, draining lakes and channeling rivers to build a farming economy that now supplies alfalfa for dairy cows and potatoes for Frito-Lay chips.

The drawdowns needed to cover the croplands and the impacts on local fish nearing extinction have long been a point of conflict at the Klamath Project, but this year’s historic drought has heightened the stakes, with salmon dying en masse and Oregon’s largest lake draining below critical thresholds for managing fish survival. Hoping to limit the carnage, federal officials have shut the gates that feed the project’s sprawling irrigation system, telling farmers the water that has flowed every year since 1907 will not be available.

Some farmers, furious about water rights and fearing financial ruin, are already organizing a resistance. “Tell Pharaoh let our water feed the Earth,” said a sign erected near the nearly dry irrigation canal that would usually be flowing with water from Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon.

Monday, May 24, 2021

NYT feature on Arkansas politics (but is it a rural story?)

Jonathan Martin reports for the New York Times, dateline Little Rock.  This is not ostensibly a rural story, but since many consider Arkansas a "rural state"--the New York Times periodically labels it as such--I'm mentioning the story here on Legal Ruralism.  The headline is "Why Arkansas Is a Test Case for a Post-Trump Republican Party."  Given the current state of play, I don't quite see anything to debate--it looks to me like Arkansas is as Trumpy as states get, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders the heir apparent to the governor's mansion.   That said, Governor Asa Hutchinson's predecessor was Democrat Mike Beebe, and a decade ago, the state still had U.S. Senators who were Democrats.  

The story's only explicit references to "rural" are here:  

What’s different about today is how much politics in a small, mostly rural state at the intersection of the Deep South, Midwest and Southwest is shaped by a figure who has almost certainly never let the phrase “Woo Pig Sooie” slip from his lips. [That's a reference to Donald Trump]

“Arkansas Republicanism is defined by President Trump right now,” said Trent Garner, a south Arkansas state lawmaker who defeated one of the remaining rural white Democrats when Mr. Trump was first elected.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Two big New York Times stories of racial division, tension in nonmetro U.S.

The first story, from a few days ago, was out of Wausau, Wisconsin, population 39,106, and the headline is "A ‘Community for All’? Not So Fast, This Wisconsin County Says.?  Reid J. Epstein reports:  

A standing-room-only crowd packed a drab courthouse meeting room one recent night and tried to resolve a thorny, yearlong debate over whether Marathon County should declare itself “a community for all.”

The lone Black member of the county board, Supervisor William Harris, stood up and begged his colleagues who opposed the resolution to change their minds.

The story quotes Harris:   

I want to feel like I’m a part of this community.  That’s what a lot of our residents are saying. We want to contribute to our community. We want to feel like a part of this community.
And then Epstein's story continues: 
But a fellow board member was just as passionate at the meeting on Thursday in arguing that acknowledging racial disparities is itself a form of racism.

The second story features Shade Lewis, a 29-year-old black farmer who stands to benefit from a new USDA program aimed at helping farmers like him.  The story's dateline is LaGrange, Missouri, population 931, in the northeast part of the state along the Mississippi River, where Lewis is the only black farmer.  Jack Healy reports under the headline, "‘You Can Feel the Tension’: A Windfall for Minority Farmers Divides Rural America."  

Shade Lewis had just come in from feeding his cows one sunny spring afternoon when he opened a letter that could change his life: The government was offering to pay off his $200,000 farm loan, part of a new debt relief program created by Democrats to help farmers who have endured generations of racial discrimination.
* * *
But the $4 billion fund has angered conservative white farmers who say they are being unfairly excluded because of their race. And it has plunged Mr. Lewis and other farmers of color into a new culture war over race, money and power in American farming.
Healy quotes Lewis:  
You can feel the tension. We’ve caught a lot of heat from the conservative Caucasian farmers.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

State of Jefferson movement evolves into push for "Greater Idaho"

I've written a lot over the years about the would-be State of Jefferson--a proposed new state encompassing a chunk of rural northern California and southern Oregon." Now, news comes that many of the counties wishing to secede from California and Oregon to form a new state would now like to join Idaho. Here's an excerpt from the Washington Post report:
Five rural counties in Oregon voted this week to press forward with a plan to leave the state and merge with neighboring Idaho, the latest move in a long-shot campaign by conservatives who say they’re fed up with Oregon’s left-leaning politics.Voters in Baker, Grant, Lake, Malheur and Sherman counties — sparsely populated areas in the state’s eastern half — approved ballot measures Tuesday requiring local officials to consider redrawing the border to make them Idahoans.

Behind the push is a nonprofit called Citizens for Greater Idaho that argues the predominantly Republican parts of Oregon would be better served if Idaho incorporated them. The group’s president, Mike McCarter, says the expanded state he envisions would become the country’s third-largest in terms of landmass.
* * *
The idea for a “Greater Idaho” began more than a year ago when McCarter, a 74-year-old former firearms instructor from La Pine, Ore., became disgruntled with the state’s liberal leanings. Across the border, he saw more ideological kinship.

His proposal for Idaho to swallow parts of Oregon’s south and east shares DNA with a long-standing push to create a “State of Jefferson,” including Northern California and southwestern Oregon. But asking to join an existing state is a slightly less difficult task than forming an entirely new one. McCarter points to a 1961 land transfer between Minnesota and North Dakota as evidence that it can be done.  (emphasis added)

A mid-April story about this matter in The Oregonian is here.   

Earlier posts about the State of Jefferson movement are here, here, and here. Or just search "State of Jefferson" on this blog to read still more.

Friday, May 21, 2021

"Prisontown USA" (an actual place in rural California) in a panic after 2022 prison closure announced

The State of California recently announced that it would close the California Correctional Center in Susanville, population 17,974, in far northern California, in 2022.  According to a story by Jeong Park in the Sacramento Bee, this closure, along with that of another prison in Tracy (in the state's Central Valley), fulfills a campaign promise by Governor Gavin Newsom to close correctional facilities in relation to the planned reduction in prisoner population.  

Susanville is also home to a second prison, High Desert State Prison.  Both of Susanville's prisons were featured in the excellent 2007 documentary by Po Kutchens, "Prisontown, USA."  

But why did California choose to close the prison in remote Lassen County rather than, say, San Quentin, which sits on San Francisco Bay.  That's a question articulated by State Senator Brian Dahle (R), who is from the Lassen County town of Bieber and who represents a huge chunk of north eastern California, from Lake Tahoe to the Oregon state line.  He commented: 

The state would make a lot of money if it sells San Quentin. That seems to me like a better opportunity than to destroy our community up north. That’s a question that didn’t get answered. How was it prioritized?

Dahle's wife, Megan, is the recently elected California Assemblywoman for the district that includes Lassen County.  The Dahle's have been meeting with folks in that part of California, as reported in the Lassen County Times. Dahle commented:  

They totally took full responsibility for not being transparent and said they were sorry, and so that’s that.  They said, ‘we want to work with you.’ So, I would like to meet with Ana Monosano (the governor’s cabinet secretary) and Kathleen Allison (CDCR secretary) on Zoom on May 17. We’re going to have Richard (Egan, Lassen County administrative officer), and Dan (Newton, interim Susanville city administrator) for sure and both of the (union) reps from SEIU and CCPOA … We want to get some information on how they chose, what the criteria made that decision.

Egan commented, 

They’ve acknowledged the secretive process and said they’re sorry.

Brian Dahle continued, 

They didn’t say secretive, they just didn’t tell anybody.  ... 

Egan continued,  

… but even then they’ve acknowledged that as a shortcoming, they haven’t changed their behavior.  They’re still doing it. We’ve (Lassen County Board of Supervisors) asked for reconsideration. We’ve asked for an explanation, and we have not received a response — not even an acknowledgement of our request.

Megan Dahle said,

We put in Public Records Act requests a couple of weeks ago, as soon as we found out.

A final quote in the Lassen County paper is from Brian Dahle, 

We’re not going to give up on our community yet.  We want to negotiate. We’re want to go in there and say, "We’re about good governance. We think we do a good job up there (at CCC), and we want you to justify where you’re at." It’s really unfortunate how they treat their employees. You think when you go to work for the state, you’ve got a good job, you’ve got a union … not to mention what it’s going to do the community. We believe we can push back. We just learned CCC is one of the three prisons in the state that lives within its budget.
The Sacramento Bee story details some other ways the closure, which according to Megan Dahle implicates 10,000 jobs, will be devastating to the Susanville economy:   

Susanville could lose more than a quarter of its workforce — jobs that pay upwards of $90,000 in some cases. Some workers could find jobs next door at the High Desert State Prison, but many would have to move. The next closest state prison is more than three hours away in Folsom.

* * * 

Already, Susanville residents worry about the job loss cascading down to layoffs in schools and government, as well as businesses. Other rural towns whose economies depend on prisons are concerned as well, said Staci Heaton, acting vice president for government affairs with Rural County Representatives of California.

Other rural prisons at risk of closure include Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown, one of the two biggest employers in Tuolumne County, and California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo County, which employs 1,800.  The Bee further reports:  

Taft in Kern County, which had its federal prison close last year, lost 18% of its population in 2020, the highest population loss in the state that year.

Interestingly, one of the themes of "Prisontown USA" was that Susanville and Lassen County saw relatively little economic benefit from the prisons because they contracted with non-local entities for supplies such as dairy products.  

The Bee story also covers the issue of whether these facilities can be converted for other uses--other enterprises that could employ some of the many correctional officers who will lose their jobs when the correctional facility closes.  Here's an interesting quote about  whether the prison can be repurposed and, if so, for what sorts of enterprises: 

The jobs created by the repurposing of prisons may also not pay as well as correctional jobs. Pay for junior cannabis growers, for instance, ranges from $30,000 to $70,000, according to a marijuana job site Hempstaff.

“You’re not going to get a correctional officer who just got laid off to go to work for a cannabis company,” said Amanda Autre, a Susanville resident who came to the Capitol last week to protest the closure. “You’re talking to very highly trained, skilled people that are out there, and their skills are very unique for what they can do."

And here's a story noting the need to help these communities transition economically when prisons close. 

Here is a related story out of Tehachapi, also a relatively rural community, this one in the Inland Empire. 

Other stories about the Susanville prisons are here and here.  An unrelated recent story out of Lassen County, this one about coronavirus testing, is here.  And another post about rural prisons in California is here.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Kansas law permitting a citizen's grand jury dates to days of "frontier justice" and prohibition

Peter Kendall reports for the Washington Post from Lindsborg, Kansas (population 3,458), home to Bethany College.  The story is about Madison Smith, who has just graduated from Bethany.  Smith was raped by a fellow student on campus a few years ago, but when the local prosecutor failed to press the case against her rapist, Smith used a little-known Kansas law to convene a grand jury to consider this matter.  That grand jury will meet this fall.  Here's an excerpt from Keller's story, with a focus on the 1887 law:  

But Smith invoked a vestige of frontier justice that allows citizens in Kansas to summon a grand jury when they think prosecutors are neglecting to bring charges in a crime. The law, dating to the 1800s, was originally used to go after saloonkeepers when authorities ignored violations of statewide prohibition. The 22-year-old graduate is believed to be the first to convene a citizen grand jury after a prosecutor declined to pursue a sex-crime charge.

Only five other states, all in the Great Plains or the West, have similar laws still on the books. The Kansas statute requires an individual to gather a certain number of signatures of support....

* * *  

A state appeals court looking into [the law's] origins cited contemporary newspaper reports saying it was intended to aid citizens frustrated with prosecutors who refused to enforce temperance laws. It was quickly successful, according to an 1889 story in the Topeka Capital-Commonwealth: “As soon as the first grand jury met, every whisky joint, about seventy-five in the county, and every drug store selling without a license had disappeared.”

“Kansas has the lowest threshold for bringing one of these petitions, so it makes it easy for someone who has an agenda to bring one,” said Marissa Hotujac, a Kansas attorney who as a law student published a legal journal article on citizen grand juries.

To convene the grand jury, the Smiths needed 329 voter signatures — 2 percent of the county’s vote total in the last gubernatorial election, plus 100 — and to have a court approve the legal grounds.

Can't help think about how the process outlined in this law plays out differently in relatively low-population counties like McPherson (population 29,000), where Lindsborg is.  Here, it meant just 329 voter signatures were necessary.   And that's to say nothing of the impact of the lack of anonymity that marks rural places, especially in a case like this one where an allegation of sexual assault was at stake.  Keller's story notes that Smith had "to relive her trauma over and over in conversations with strangers."  But it probably also meant she had to relive the trauma repeatedly in conversations with people she and her family knew.  

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

In Shasta County, California, rural folks don't just dislike state and federal government, some have declared war on local gov't, too

The headline out of Redding, California is "Threats, videos and a recall: A California militia fuels civic revolt in a red county, as reported by Anita Chabria and Hailey Branson-Potts for the Los Angeles Times. The alternative headline is "Amid COVID-19, a California militia is fueling civic revolt."  Here's the gist of the story out of Shasta County, population 177,223:

Known as the “second sunniest city in the U.S.,” Redding now feels to some like a tinderbox, with Shasta County residents divided over the health risks posed by the pandemic, government’s power and the degree that armed citizenry should take matters into their own hands.

Speakers at [County Board of ]supervisors’ meetings have repeatedly threatened violence, militia members have attended racial justice rallies carrying concealed weapons and opponents of the far right say they are increasingly afraid to speak out, fearing retribution.

[Carlos] Zapata has been at the center of this fray, becoming a literal “poster boy” for a media campaign that hopes to redirect the energies of Trump supporters into local politics, and spread civic revolt nationwide.

Zapata, a 42-year-old Marine Corps combat veteran, made his viral debut in August. At a Shasta County supervisors meeting, he warned of potential violence if elected officials did not drop pandemic health restrictions. “It’s not going to be peaceful much longer. ... Good citizens are going to turn into real concerned and revolutionary citizens real soon,” he warned.

Or maybe the message here is now that local government is worse than the federal government, but I don't think that's it.  I think it's that all government is bad when its positions clash with might-makes-right thinking associated with these militias.

And speaking of militias, the Department of Homeland Security issues a warning about Shasta County this week, as reported in the Shasta Scout, a non-profit news website based in Redding:

Last Friday, May 14th, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued an updated threat assessment bulletin regarding domestic terrorism. The update has important implications for Shasta County, where both online and in-person violent speech and threats against local government officials and other county residents have occurred over the past year.

According to the bulletin, sent out as part of the National Terrorism Advisory System(NTAS), America is currently facing evolving, complex and volatile domestic terrorism threats that will be heightened over the next few months of 2021. The bulletin is listed as active until August 13, 2021. The Department of Homeland Security asks the public to report suspicious activity and threats of violence, including online threats, to local law enforcement or an FBI Field Office.

Locally, violent speech or threats have occurred repeatedly both in public meetings and online over the past year. One such incident involved an online threat that appeared to advocate for the killing of a local journalist who has written extensively about “patriot” movement activists. Referring to that journalist, activist Jesse Lane wrote on Facebook, “I think it’s time we remove her from our way of living.” One commenter responded, “We are on board! Keep it private, keep us in the loop.”

Another story of resistance to pandemic regulation is this one out of El Dorado County, just east of Sacramento.  The headline for the Sacramento Bee story is "California county to public: Stop hostility toward health workers over state mask mandate," and Michael McGough reports:  

El Dorado County officials on Thursday asked residents to stop directing “verbal and physical hostility” toward county employees over COVID-19 restrictions, particularly the mask mandate, which are state decisions the local health office cannot overrule.
The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors is encouraging the public to "redirect COVID-19 complaints to state decision makers.”
The statement comes after a group of more than 100 anti-mask protesters showed up at the county health office in Placerville.

A group of a few dozen demonstrators crammed into the building’s lobby Monday morning — most of them children, along with several adult organizers — holding signs and chanting “no more masks” for several minutes, video posted to social media shows.

The next day, at least three participants spoke during the public comment period of a regularly scheduled Board of Supervisors meeting imploring county officials to make masks optional rather than mandatory at schools — which would violate the state health order.
County spokeswoman Carla Hass expanded on the issue in an email to the Bee.  
Protesters have brought their protest into the Public Health lobby, unmasked, disrupting business operations with elderly and other clients.  They have stood on chairs while chanting and yelling, banged on windows, blocked the entrance, and instilled general concern and fear for safety amongst staff and clients.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

How changing federal definitions would mean fewer "metro" places, and less federal assistance to "rural" areas

Sarah Vowell writes for the New York Times:  "My Beloved College Town Has a Problem.  It's Too Popular." Here's the data part of the story, about Bozeman, Montana: 

Lately, this college town in the Gallatin Valley close to Yellowstone National Park, with Montana’s busiest airport, has been one of the country’s fastest-growing “micropolitan statistical areas” — what the federal Office of Management and Budget calls places with an urban core and a population of 10,000 to 50,000.
And here's a related excerpt that gets at the politics of the column, which implicates a proposed definitional change that would have implications for federal funding flowing to Big Sky Country--and to Bozeman in particular:
Forthcoming census results are expected to confirm that Bozeman’s population has surged past 50,000, bumping it up from “micropolitan” to the O.M.B.’s “metropolitan” category. 

* * * 

But then the O.M.B., like a crow dropping a mouse corpse from the sky, announced a proposed change to the “metropolitan” threshold to populations of at least 100,000.
As you'll already have a sense, Vowell is a very funny writer, so don't miss the column in its entirety.  Plus, you'll learn something about the politics and implications of federal designations of what counties are nonmetropolitan (including micropolitan) and which ones are not. 

Another interesting post on the metro-nonmetro distinction, and some hi-jinks it causes, is here.  

Friday, May 14, 2021

Foothills wine region resists siting of Dollar General, invoking area's rurality as inconsistent with chain

Gray's Corner, Somerset, California, May, 2021

The adjacent communities of FairPlay, Somerset and Mt. Aukum have for several months been resisting Dollar General's proposal to site a story at the corner of Mr. Aukum Road and Fairplay Road, in El Dorado County, California.  This place is an hour away from where I live in greater Sacramento, and I've been paying more attention to this dispute than I might otherwise because my family has an off-the-grid cabin a few miles away.  So we're in the area once a month or so, and we also subscribe to the local "Nextdoor" chat.  That's where we started seeing talk of this Dollar General set to go in there--we heard about it as the locals organized on NextDoor to try to stop it. 

The biggest obstacle to stopping the siting of the Dollar General in this location seems to be that it is already zoned commercial.  In fact, the Dollar General would sit adjacent to "Gray's Corner" convenience store, your typical gas station and mini-mart.  There's another building there, too, where there used to be a beauty salon--and perhaps also a tasting room.  But now it's just Gray's Corner market and the specter of a Dollar General.   

The locals have tried various methods to oppose the Dollar General.  Here's an online petition, which features the following information about the corporation (none of which I have verified):  

Dollar General's start up is only $250,000. It recoups this investment in under 2 years. It targets rural communities of less than 20, 000 people and Low INCOME areas. They target areas known as "food deserts" where residents do not have ready access to food stores. Many states have policies that prevent Dollar General from opening within a mile of an established store. The target audience buys small quantity house brands that actually cost more than going to town to buy in greater bulk. Their marketing demographic is low income, seniors and millennials and those with just a few dollars in their pocket. There are now more Dollar General Stores than McDonalds in the US.

More authoritative is this column by Brian Depew of the Center for Rural Affairs.  He provides this perspective in the May/June 2021 newsletter:  

Dollar General has become a ubiquitous feature of America’s small towns. The discount retailer is opening new stores at a rate of 1,000 a year. There are now more than 16,000 spread across the country, including two in the county where I live. The unmistakable concrete walls, steel roof, and bright yellow sign are now commonplace on the outskirts of small towns and stand out like palmer amaranth in a soybean field.

Many local economic developers see the discount retailer as a threat to local retail. Dollar General added limited groceries in 2003, posing a unique threat to local grocery stores, which often operate on tight margins.

Other economic developers argue Dollar General creates jobs and helps keep shoppers in town. I get it. In thousands of miles spent traversing the rural Midwest, I have found myself in small towns with no other retail or grocery options.

The irony is that this solution makes the situation worse with low-wage jobs, loss of local ownership, and loss of local tax revenue when other businesses close or fail to open because they cannot, or don’t want to, compete with a corporate behemoth.

We must grow and nurture the communities we want to live in. Local ownership of small businesses, farms, and ranches makes communities stronger. Local owners care about their towns, neighbors, and customers.

When you shop at the local hardware store, the profit stays in town and builds the local economy. At Dollar General, every dollar of profit goes to Wall Street. The company reported $27.8 billion in sales in 2019, and its stock climbed 700% in 10 years.

Protecting our communities from these corporate interests is difficult, but here are a few strategies to consider.
Gray's Corner, Somerset, California, May, 2021

Speaking of strategies of resistance, at the dozens of wineries near the proposed site, one can find large postcards opposing the Dollar General, which include language like this: 

Help our Community and Neighbors stop the proposed Dollar General from moving into the Fair Play area.  We are the Fair Play AVA and it took a ton of work and individual effort to obtain that classification.  We do not need a Dollar General Store being the first thing our guests and tourists see when they come into the Fair Play area.  

PLEASE CONTACT YOUR EL DORADO COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, AND PLANNING COMMISSIONERS AT THE FOLLOWING EMAIL, AND DEMAND THAT YOUR COMMUNITY VOICE BE HEARD, AND THAT THEY STOP THE PROJECT FROM GOING FORWARD DUE TO CEQA AND ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS. 

EMAIL edc.cob@edcgov.uds AND julie.saylor@edcgov.us 

 

Postcards being distributed at FairPlay AVA wineries, May 2021 (c) Lisa R. Pruitt

The postcards feature an aerial view of the FairPlay area.  This is not the first time I've seen campaigns explicitly invoking El Dorado County's rural character, usually in the election context.  Some posts about those earlier events/issues are here, here and here.  Some posts about commerce in El Dorado County, including Fair Play, are here, here, and here.  

Vacant lot where proposed Dollar General Store would be sited in FairPlay, California

As it happens, these efforts to lobby the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors have thus far fallen on deaf ears.  And on March 10, 2021, the Sacramento Business Journal reported that the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors had rejected a proposal to ban approvals of chain businesses in rural parts of the county for 45 days.  This must have arisen because of the Dollar General matter, but I can't get behind the paywall to see if Dollar General is mentioned in the story.  

Vacant commercial center at Gray's Corner,
FairPlay (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021
Looking at the county newspaper, the Mountain Democrat (which holds itself out as the oldest paper in California), I see coverage of a rally last Saturday in opposition to the store.  The caption for a photo accompanying that story (also behind a paywall) states:

The Dollar General proposed to go in at that very intersection does not need Planning Commission approval as the site is zoned commercial and the county has no design requirements in place that might protect the rural character of the area. Residents say the region, which is known for its wineries and scenic countryside, is not the right fit for a chain store.

I also see from searching the Mountain Democrat website that other communities in the county successfully fended off Dollar General stores.  Those were in the northern part of the county, north of Highway 50, in the arguably more atmospheric Gold Rush towns of Georgetown and Cool.  You can read more here (just go to the Mountain Democrat's website and search "Dollar General").  At least one of those matters wound up in El Dorado County Superior Court.  

Prior posts about El Dorado County are here, here, here, here, here, and here.  

Coronavirus in Rural America (Part CXXXI): Two Washington Post education stories feature rural schools

Both of these recent stories are by Hannah Natanson, education reporter for the Washington Post.  The first is dateline Eden, North Carolina, though it's about a school in Bassett, Virginia, population     , just across the state line.  That's because the Virginia high school used a venue in North Carolina, where pandemic restrictions were less strict, for a prom.  The headline is "How a rural Virginia town came together for an unforgettable pandemic prom," and it's a tale of rural community and resourcefulness.  

The second story is about families who moved to other places--some of them rural--so their children could attend school in person.  Now that schools everywhere are opening, these families are considering what to do--to stay or return home.  One of those families moved from near Portland, Oregon, to Homer, Alaska, population 6,000, into a cabin called "the end of the road." The kids fell in love.  Here's an excerpt: 

The family moved to Alaska last August after online schooling led to “so much screaming and tears and sadness,” Elder said. She chose the small town of Homer for its in-person learning, but also because it’s where she grew up and where two of her brothers still live with their wives and children.

The benefits were immediate: Her third-grader, Audrey, and kindergarten-aged son, Kenneth, started making progress in school again. Their faces lit up every morning when they spotted the school bus. Every afternoon, 6-year-old Kenneth listed aloud everything he learned that day.

Given Homer’s low coronavirus case rates, restaurants remained open. Rural Alaska also opened a new range of outdoor activities, including fishing and hikes with views of Homer’s harbor.

You'll have to read the entire Natanson piece to see how that family's story ends. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

How opioid distributors ridiculed West Virginians, even as they pumped millions of pills into Appalachia

Eric Eyre, the Pulitzer Prize winning West Virginia journalist who has been reporting on Appalachia's opioid epidemic for a while now, caught my attention this evening with a tweet about a somewhat scandalous dispatch today from the federal trial charging three major pharmaceutical distributors with fueling the region's opioid crisis.  Today's dispatch is headlined, "As opioid epidemic raged, drug company executives made fun of West Virginians," and it is reported by two of Eyre's colleagues at the Mountain State Spotlight, Lucas Manfield and Lauren Peace.  Here's an excerpt:  

In one [email], shared on Thursday, AmerisourceBergen executive Chris Zimmerman shared a lyrical parody of the theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies,” making fun of “a poor mountaineer” who purchased pills at a “cash ‘n carry” pain clinic.

Another was titled “OxyContinVille” and included a parody of a Jimmy Buffett song that described driving from Kentucky to buy pills.

In a third email, a member of Zimmerman’s team wrote, “One of the hillbilly’s must have learned how to read :-)” in response to an email detailing Kentucky’s new opioid regulations.

Zimmerman apologized in court for the contents of some of the emails, including the use of the term “pillbillies,” which he said referred to drug dealers, not patients.

“I shouldn’t have sent the email,” he said, but added that he took the attacks upon his credibility “personally.” He said the documents were cherry-picked out of context and defended the corporate culture at AmerisourceBergen, one of the three opioid distributors on trial in Charleston, and said it was of the “highest caliber.”

Eyre was interviewed yesterday on National Public Radio, explaining what's at stake in the criminal case against these corporations.  

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

SMU Law's Deason Center Seeks Criminal Justice Fellow to investigate "Country Justice"

Here are some details from the listing (NOTE:  preferred deadline is Friday, May 14, 2021): 

The post-doctoral fellow will perform research into criminal justice systems in small, tribal, and rural (STAR) communities. In particular, the fellow will lead the implementation of a mixed-methods research project titled "Country Justice." Launching in the state of Texas, the project aims to (1) Collect and analyze publicly available data about rural criminal justice systems statewide to better understand the relationship between justice systems and geographic and cultural contexts; (2) Conduct case studies of rural justice systems; (3) Synthesize and publish findings for scholarly and practitioner communities; (4) Work with community partners to identify and investigate issues of local concern. The Fellow will be produce scholarship on this research and, as opportunities arise and funding permits, will take on additional STAR justice work.

Essential Functions:
  • Plan, organize and conduct highly independent research under the guidance of the Director of Research. Collect, analyze, and interpret data independently or with little or no supervision. Develop and test research methods, measures, designs, and protocols. Analyze data and present findings and conclusions in relation to research questions.
  • Collaborate with the Director of Research and other members of the research team in preparing and publishing research results in peer-refereed journals. Present results at professional conferences and/or webinars. Prepare regular progress reports for project funders.
  • Participate in research proposals as co-Investigator
  • Keep abreast of research literature and emerging knowledge and translate advances in the subject area into research activity.
  • Attend and contribute to regular team and staff meetings, coordinating work with that of others to avoid conflict or duplication of effort. Anticipate and help resolve problems that may affect research objectives and deadlines.
  • Organizing Center events related to STAR, and supply content and some editorial oversight for the Center's STAR newsletter.
Read more here.  

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Law and Society 2021 features four (yes, count them, four!) panels on rural issues

 Here's the line up, pasted from an email from co-organizers of the Law and Rurality Collaborative Research Network, Michele Statz (University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth) and Katie (Kathryne) Young (University of Massachusetts Amherst):

The Law and Rurality CRN (#24) is thrilled to sponsor the following panels at the upcoming Law and Society Association 2021 Annual Meeting. Please note that the times listed are CDT.

Thursday, May 27
11 - 12:45 pm
Session ID: 842: "Counter-Narratives of the Rural Access to Justice Crisis: Interrogating Hypotheses, Methods, and the Stories We Tell"
Session Chair: Katie Young
Panelists: Michele Statz, Brian Farrell, Daria Fisher Page, Andrew Davies, and Victoria Smiegocki

Friday, May 28
1 - 2:45 pm
Session ID: 299: "Law in Liminal Spaces"
Session Chair: Lisa Pruitt
Panelists: Emily Prifogle, Jessica Shoemaker, Mary Hoopes, and Smita Ghosh

Friday, May 28
5 - 6:45 pm
Session ID: 389: "Using Data and Collaboration to Address Growth in Jail Incarceration in Rural America: Initial Findings from the Rural Jails Policy and Research Network"
Session Chair: Jennifer Peirce
Panelists: Jennifer Schwartz, Madeline Bailey, Sarah Shannon, and Andrew Taylor

Friday, May 28
7 - 8:45 pm
Session ID: 204: "Access to Justice, Legal Institutions, and Everyday People: What's Different about the Rural US?"
Session Chair: Katie Young
Panelists: Jennifer Sherman, Katie Billings, Annie Eisenberg, and Maybell Romero

If you're not yet a member of the Law and Rurality CRN but would like to learn more, please visit our website and/or email Michele Statz at mstatz@d.umn.edu to join our listserv.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Cruz Reynoso's rural life

Cruz Reynoso, former California Supreme Court Justice and my colleague at UC Davis School of Law for two decades, died yesterday at the age of 90.  Many are offering remembrances of Reynoso--who the faculty and staff at the law school knew as just "Cruz"--and it's interesting for me as a ruralist to see the number of references to "rural" in his life's story.  

Of course, Reynoso famously led California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the "first statewide, federally funded legal aid program in the country."  That was during the heyday of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta's organizing in the 1960s.  CRLA provides free legal services to farmworkers.  In California, "rural" is largely conflated with agriculture in the popular imaginary (though there are far less densely populated and more remote California locales than its agricultural valleys), and the organization's website articulates its mission as helping “rural communities because those communities were not receiving legal help.”  The tumultuous history of that organization under Reynoso's leadership is recounted in a Los Angeles Times story

Then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan repeatedly vetoed federal funds for the California Rural Legal Assistance while Reynoso headed the office and even signed off on an investigation that accused the nonprofit of trying to foment murders and prison riots (the investigation went nowhere).
Among other achievements during his leadership, Reynoso "oversaw eventually successful efforts to ban the short-handled hoe, which required farm workers to stoop and led to debilitating back problems, and DDT, the deadly agricultural chemical."  

The Sacramento Bee reports on one of CRLA's big litigation victories under Reynoso's leadership, Diana v. California State Board of Education:  
It centered on Latino children who were incorrectly assessed by their school and labeled mentally challenged. The pupils were funneled into special education classes when, in reality, they were simply new English learners. CRLA lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of students in the Monterey County town of Soledad.

“CRLA won a consent decree that allowed non-Anglo children to choose the language in which they would respond on IQ tests,” wrote the Salinas Californian in 2016. “It banned verbal sections of the test. It also required state psychologists to develop an IQ test appropriate for Mexican Americans and other non-English-speaking students.”

This column by Gustavo Arellano in the Los Angeles Times, recounts Reynoso's childhood--including early activism--in Orange County, which then included significant rural stretches: 

[Reynoso's] family lived in a rural part of La Habra, where the Ku Klux Klan had held the majority of City Council seats just a decade earlier and Mexicans were forced to live on the wrong side of the tracks. Reynoso’s parents and neighbors had to travel a mile to the post office for their mail because the local postmaster claimed it was too inconvenient to deliver letters to their neighborhood.

Reynoso didn’t question this at first — “I just accepted that as part of the scheme of things,” he’d tell an oral historian decades later, in 2002.

But one day, a white family moved near the Reynosos and immediately began to receive mail. The teenage Cruz asked the postmaster why they were able to receive mail, but his Mexican family couldn’t. If you have a problem with this, the postmaster replied, write to her boss in Washington D.C.

And write a letter to the U.S. Postmaster General is exactly what Reynoso did.  According to a story released by UC Davis on the occasion of Reynoso's death: 

He wrote out a petition, gathered signatures, and successfully lobbied the U.S. Postmaster General in Washington, D.C., for rural mail delivery.

The obituary in the Los Angeles Times notes that Reynoso continued to live a rural life, even while working in Sacramento and Davis.  He "had a 30-acre spread in the agricultural Sacramento County town of Herald," population 1,184.  The LA Times also reports that, as children, Reynoso and his 10 siblings worked summers in the fields with their parents. 

But the rural fact that leapt out at me most prominently was this line from the UC Davis story about what Reynoso did after finishing law school at UC Berkeley:

Justice Reynoso and his wife, Jeannene, moved to El Centro, in California’s Imperial Valley, where he started his own practice.
Imperial County and El Centro, its county seat, are legal deserts these days--and they probably were back then, too.  Just imagine a UC Berkeley Law or UC Davis Law grad going to El Centro and hanging out a shingle in 2021?  It's nearly unthinkable.  If it were more common to follow such a career path--and for legal educators to honor those paths--the Golden State would not be facing a rural lawyer shortage, with impoverished communities of vulnerable workers like the Imperial Valley suffering most as a consequence of that deficit.    

A Sacramento Bee column about Reynoso, by Marcos Breton on the occasion of Reynoso's death, is here.  Among other striking photos is one of Reynoso at the Herald property in 2000 with his then young grandchildren; Reynoso was wearing overalls, to me a signifier of his rural authenticity.  The photo was taken by a Bee reporter the year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and it ran on the occasion of that  paper's reporting of the honor.  

Speaking of that authenticity, I always appreciated Cruz's use of the word "folk" to refer to groups of people, or the populace generally. Indeed, I see the Spanish translation is "la gente," meaning "people, town, dweller."  For me, his use of "folk" provided implicit permission to use that word and "folks," both terms I'd grown up with but later excised from my professional vocabulary because I was concerned they were too colloquial.  

Cruz was as approachable to students as he was to faculty and staff. We often saw him walking to the Silo (an eatery on campus) with a group of students for lunch. And in my first year at UC Davis, 1999-2000, when Cruz was visiting from UCLA's law school, he gamely agreed to participate in a student sponsored moot court event called "Battle of the Giants," which featured two professors playing the role of advocates in a mock appellate argument. It took a while for the student organizers of the event to find someone to be the opposing "giant" (eventually, I reluctantly agreed), but Cruz had not hesitated to take on this time consuming task that would hardly be valued by the administration.

Cruz was very gentle in how he engaged and educated people. I heard him say, in his typical soft-spoken way, to a group of students many years ago, "No human being is illegal." This was at at a time when the phrases "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" were still widely used. Expressed in his avuncular way, it made people think and I'm sure won over many. It's quite a contrast with the counterproductive ways in which so many in our educational institutions today "call out" and "cancel" each other in such shrill fashion, often serving only to put the targets on the defensive and close their minds, not open them.   

Given Cruz's commitment to students, it's not surprising that his family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the UC Davis student scholarship "for legal access" fund that honors him and his wife.  

Cross-posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog.  

Thursday, May 6, 2021

A rural judge's commentary on Michele Statz's article on rural judging

The commentary, by the Honorable David E. Ackerson, was published a few days ago by the Rural Reconciliation project.  I'll provide just a short excerpt here:  

I was a Minnesota state trial judge of general jurisdiction for 36 ½ years in the same small town where I grew up. I have been retired for almost three years. So I have lots of stories, although nobody pays much attention anymore, and my jokes are apparently not as funny as they used to be. At the same time, I find my perspective refreshingly unfettered by any allegiances to the “system.”

Dr. Statz, from her title to her conclusion, speaks of “shared suffering” as a point of intimacy between rural judges and those individual parties, mostly indigent and pro-se, who come before the judges in the rural northern courts. The word “suffering” derives etymologically from the Latin “sufferre,” to bear from below. When Dr. Statz connects rural justice with “Subaltern Cosmopolitan Legality,” bottom-up rather than top-down, she is right on. Further: the etymology of “compassion” is suffer with. Thus, at the very base of her thesis of what makes rural justice work is this idea of compassion, of subjective, relational empathy and kindness. And more further: the same Latin root, “patientia” is plainly revealed in “patience”, which in my view is the better part of the wisdom, Sophia, that mates with the word of law, Logos, and thus in the manner of the iconic statue of Lady Justice, leads to true, restorative justice. This is deep truth, and I most wholeheartedly thank Dr. Statz for her work in beginning to reveal this truth in a professional, courageous, creative, and I submit ground-breaking manner.

Dr. Statz directly confronts the urban-centric hegemony and epistemology of the system and how they burden rural justice. She speaks incisively and eloquently of a judicial approach that she describes as commonsensical, ad hoc, deeply intimate; an emerging alternative to top-down hegemony, “born of shared suffering and power-filled resistance.” She endows her work with acute insight born of hard work, and in a most professional manner. Members of the legal profession are not naturally familiar with the scientific methodology of an “Anthropologist of Law” who teaches at a medical school, thus her scholarship gives to all of us rural judges and legal practitioners something beyond our own anecdotal experiences. She constructs a rock-solid foundational groundwork for unveiling the emergent blossoming of a restorative rural justice unfettered by the dictates of time-worn urban-centric models of how the legal system and the legal profession should work.

Here's the abstract for the Statz article, On Shared Suffering: Judicial Intimacy in the Rural Northland, published recently in the Law and Society Review

Rural state and tribal court judges in the upper US Midwest offer an embodied alternative to prevailing understandings of “access to justice.” Owing to the high density of social acquaintanceship, coupled with the rise in unrepresented litigants and the impossibility of most proposed state access to justice initiatives, what ultimately makes a rural courtroom accessible to parties without counsel is the judge. I draw on over four years of ethnographic fieldwork and an interdisciplinary theoretical framework to illuminate the lived consequences and global implications of judges' responses, which can be read as grassroots‐level creativity, as resistance, or simply as “getting by.”

The entirety of the judge's commentary--and, of course, Prof. Statz's article--are worth reading in their entirety.  

Rural America gets a big WSJ headline in opinion piece about wind energy

 Robert Bryce, host of the "Power Hungry Podcast," offers an opinion piece under the headline, "Rural America Gets Bad Vibrations From Big Wind."  Here's an excerpt where he gets to the rural explicitly, many paragraphs in:

Many rural governments that have implemented restrictions have been sued by wind developers. In December, Madison County, Iowa, famous for its covered wooden bridges, passed a measure that effectively bans new wind turbines. 

* * *

The fundamental constraint is land. Places like Scituate, Foster, Yates, and Madison County are fighting wind projects because, like people everywhere, they care about and want to protect their communities.

Paving rural America with forests of giant wind turbines and oceans of solar panels won’t solve climate change. It will, however, cost trillions of dollars, blight landscapes, kill untold numbers of bats and birds, make people sick, and lead to more economic pain in rural towns and counties.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Colorado nonprofit buys 24 local newspapers serving state's front range

The Colorado Sun, an online news outlet, announced the purchase today, which appears to be about exurban and suburban papers more than it is about rural ones:  

The Colorado Sun is now part owner and operator of 24 suburban newspapers in the Denver metro area.

The Sun has partnered with a new nonprofit called the National Trust for Local News, which is using this endeavor with us as a pilot project to show that local and national funders can collaborate with local journalists to keep newspapers in local hands.

All too often these days, hedge funds are the first ones in line to buy newspapers, and no one wanted to see that happen. News is too important to be left to absentee owners who care only about double-digit profits, not the journalists and the communities they serve.

Together, The Sun and the National Trust have purchased Colorado Community Media, which has 24 weekly and monthly newspapers serving eight counties including and surrounding Denver. Some of these newspapers are more than 100 years old (the Golden Transcript alone is 153 years old), and they range from Castle Rock to Brighton, Evergreen to Arvada, Parker to Denver’s Washington Park and beyond. Check out the new site coloradonewsconservancy.com for further details. You’ll also see a full list of newspapers later in this column.

* * *

Jerry and Ann Healey, the owner-publishers of Colorado Community Media, have done a terrific job of ensuring that these newspapers produce the accurate information readers need to be informed citizens and engaged members of their communities.

Nearing retirement, they reached out in hopes of keeping these newspapers in local hands. We’re thrilled that it all came together, and we’re looking forward to doing great work together.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXVIII): Miscellany

A front-page headline in the April 7, 2021 issue of the Newton County Times was "Jasper begins land use regulation study."  Jasper, population   , is my hometown, and it is the county seat of the county.  Here's the lede:  

Jasper government official met Wednesday March 31, with experts in the area of community economic development planning from the University of Arkansas, Little Rock/Arkansas Economic Development Institute (AEDI) to begin the process of updating existing city zoning regulations in order to meet the goals the city has set out in its Future Strategic Community Plan (FSCP).  

AEDI worked with the city to develop the plan over a year-long process that included community meetings, surveys and studies.  The FSCP was published in July 2020 and has become the basis of choosing projects that benefit business, government or the community and to improve the area's overall quality of life. 

Attending the meeting were [the mayor, the city administrator, a city council member and Planning and Land Use Committee chair, public works director and water operator] and the city's attorney, R Dawn Allen from Berryville.  Officials in attendance from Little Rock were the AEDI director, emergency management specialist Miles McDonnell, and several community economic development planners.  

As the FSCP notes, the population of Jasper and Newton County has been on the decline.  The city wants to enhance the community and quality of life to attract new businesses and residents. 

The plan recommends development should occur in areas where infrastructure and public services already exist, updating city zoning regulations, and reusing and redeveloping existing parcels and structures versus development of vacant parcels.  

The mayor said that, in recent months, the city has been faed with several requests for rezoning property within the city for a change of use.  She said she doesn't now how to answer those queries when people bring them to her at city hall.  The story then goes on to list some examples, including regarding placement of tiny houses, the prospect of turning private residences into commercial properties, like bed and breakfasts, and developers wanting water and sewer lines relocated to suit their needs. 

The city attorney said she had researched ordinances of cities similar in size to Jasper to see if those ordinances can be adjusted to meet Jasper's needs.  

Here's an interesting line from the article: 

It was pointed out that tourism is the community's economic engine.  They city has few if any filing or permit fees.  The city has a surplus of water that it purchases under an agreement with Ozark Mountain Regional Water Authority.  

One of the AEDI planners mentioned that the town's topography "creates problem for the laying of water and sewer lines," requiring pumps to get water uphill.  Updated maps of water and sewer lines are needed, too.  AEDI GIS mapping specialists may be able to assist.  

City officials said they want to attract small retail businesses because there is no room for large industry.  They also noted a need for homes for workers:  "The problem is there isn't enough housing available in either Jasper or the county," especially housing lower earning families can afford.  "It was noted many people who work in the city such as the school have to commute from other neighboring towns or communities."  

Health and transportation services are needed by the more senior population which is currently on the rise. 

When the AEDI planners asked if the city has a goal population, no one had a clear answer.  One local official commented that "residents don't want Jasper's small town atmosphere to radically change."  

The topics of annexing more land also came up, as did seeking government grants for parks and expansion of emergency services.  The AEDI personnel "reviewed a long list of recommendations prepared for the city to encourage and prepare for future development ... includ[ing] zoning and design guidelines, prioritizing infrastructure improvements, and emergency access and other areas of economic development such as infrastructure agreements, tax investment financing, tax abatement, establishing special assessment districts and special service districts. 

Speaking of taxes, a recent story indicated that the city is considering a "burger tax."  This also relates, of course, to the importance of tourism to the area's economy.  

Speaking of zoning and housing, a subsequent story, on April 21, 2021, is headlined "Jasper passes residential building code."  

The ordinance defines multi-family and single family dwellings and permitted uses of residential structures.  These to no include travel trailers or single-wide mobile homes, but may include double-wide mobile homes or modular homes that have tongues, wheels and axles permanently removed after the unit is placed on a permanent concrete slab foundation or other approved foundation.  The exterior shall be situated and maintained to give the appearance of a site-built home.  

A residential structure replacing a structure in place at the time of this ordinance  

Lot area and setbacks include a minimum lot area of 5000 square feet for a single family dwelling.  An additional 1,500 square feet is required for each additional unit per lot.  The ordinance also addresses lot widths, the size of front, side and rear yards.  Dwelling size requires a minimum of 750 square feet for each additional family unit per lot.  The maximum height allowed by the ordinance is 2 stories.

There is also information on the permitting process, including the fact that "[i]f the city takes no action on a permit request within 45 days, the permit is assumed to be approved.  

Another story from the April 21 paper reports that the Jasper City Council has selected an architect to renovate the old Buffalo Theatre.  The council passed a resolution to accept the building as a gift from Don Nelms, who has owned it for several years after acquiring it from a local non profit that tried to use it as a theatre and community center.  The City's plan is to use it as a visitor's center.  The firm selected for the work, Clements & Associates of North Little Rock, was "selected from others because the owner is familiar with Jasper and ... has worked on similar restoration projects." The story does not detail the nature of that familiarity.  One of my early jobs--from perhaps age 12-14--was running the concession stand at the Buffalo Theatre, where movies were shown on its sole screen Friday through Sunday, evenings only.  

Closing California's digital divide

Many readers will be familiar with the “digital divide,” or the gulf that divides those who have modern internet access from those that do not, and how rurality is a factor in the lack of access for many Californians

There is bipartisan movement at the national level to close the divide. But why does this gap persist in California, and what is the state doing to support its rural residents needing reliable, modern internet connections?

Unserved communities are found in urban and rural areas, but their difficulties in accessing high-speed internet have different causes. Urban households tend to have the infrastructure in place but run into affordability issues. In contrast, rural areas’ barrier to broadband access stems from a lack broadband of infrastructure altogether. Income also plays a role in access to internet connected devices. Across the board, rural areas tend to have less access to broadband than urban areas. This divide widens as internet speed increases.

In rural areas, the main barriers to broadband internet access come from the difficulty of building infrastructure in remote locations, internet service providers’ (ISPs) lack of interest in building said infrastructure, and difficulty in displacing entrenched incumbent internet providers.

Funding currently exists for rural areas to build internet infrastructure through the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The CASF provides funding to unserved areas, which are defined as an area that does not have an ISP offering downstream speeds of at least 6 megabits per second (Mbps) and upstream speeds of at least 1 Mbps. These speeds are benchmarks from 1990s-era internet speeds, insufficient for many modern web-based communication apps, especially when multiple users are using the same internet connection.

Current law requires the CASF to fund broadband infrastructure projects of 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps. Though these speeds are faster than the “underserved” benchmark, they are still insufficient because most streaming video applications (including remote learning, telehealth, and video conferencing) require speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. Downstream and upstream refer to the rates at which an internet-connected machine can receive and send data, respectively.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) introduced S.B. 1130, a bill that sought to increase high-speed internet access for Californians by expanding the number of areas and households eligible for CASF funding to build broadband infrastructure. Though the bill died, in no small part to opposition from cable companies, Sen. Gonzalez introduced S.B. 4 this year.  S.B.4 has more modest goals than S.B. 1130 and an improved ability for the CASF to collect revenue. Where S.B. 4 is modest, other bills seek to fill in the gaps S.B. 1130 would have filled.

S.B. 4 would redefine “unserved” as an area that does not have access to facility-based ISP offering speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. The redefinition would expand the number of communities eligible for CASF grants who previously were not considered unserved. Projects seeking a CASF grant would be required to deploy infrastructure capable of providing speeds of 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream, or the Federal Communication Committee’s most current speed standard, whichever is faster.

Cable companies opposed S.B. 1130 last year, contending that the bill would divert CASF funds away from rural communities behind because money will go towards improving existing infrastructure in urban areas. The assertion that there will only be projects done in urban areas is premised on the assumption that ISPs alone will be taking on infrastructure projects. ISPs base this assumption on their historical behavior of forgoing infrastructure build-outs in rural areas due to low return on investments.

The proposed changes to the CASF could improve broadband access in rural areas by incentivizing infrastructure development where it remains unbuilt. The bill would create a bond program for local governments to borrow long-term, low-interest loans to develop fiber optic infrastructure.

Further bolstering rural communities’ ability to access funding for fiber optic infrastructure projects is Senator Patricia Bates’ (R-Laguna Niguel) S.B. 732. The bill would create the multi-billion dollar Rural Broadband Infrastructure Fund, to be used for broadband infrastructure projects of at least 100 Mbps upstream and 100 Mbps downstream speeds in underserved rural communities. The bill defines underserved rural communities as those without a facility-based (i.e. non-satellite-based) broadband provider offering broadband service at speeds exceeding 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.

These high speeds may be especially useful in rural areas where laying fiber optic cables is exceedingly difficult because the infrastructure would facilitate fiber to short range wireless towers.

Without the private sector’s single-minded focus on quarterly profits and with a mandate to serve their communities, local governments and co-ops are well situated to bring future-proof broadband to unserved areas. Both bills could also increase competition in the ISP market by giving smaller internet providers, local governments, and co-ops to access CASF funds when building out last-mile infrastructure to rural communities.

We will continue to monitor the status of these bills. While the divide remains to be bridged, it is at least heartening to see state legislators from ostensibly metro areas keeping the interests of rural people at the front.