News from Jefferson County

Private property exerts immense, almost sacred, influence on virtually all law and public policy. Still, every practicing lawyer knows that possession is nine-tenths of legal ownership.

What can be kept? What must be shared? What can be taken from you? What is theft? What is exploitation? The vicissitudes of life, of family, especially of economic and technological development, compel us to frequently redraw or renew or forgo old boundaries, and change our personal and collective answers to these questions. Now is such a time.

The mortgage meltdown and the now massing credit shortages are changing the character and content of many local political controversies. In my little West Virginia community of Jefferson County, for example, longstanding disputes over the direction of economic development are reaching a conclusion as the public is invited to debate a complete rewrite of zoning regulations.

Zoning regulations define what kind of development will be permitted in the lands under the domain of the zoning authority, in this case all non-incorporated county lands.

For years, real estate developers and their bankers have held the dominant position, and this has been reflected in their political influence, as their vision of turning the county into the remotest Washington, D.C.-Baltimore “bedroom community” overtook public development philosophy.

In the absence of a better one, the idea made some sense. The D.C.-Baltimore commuter train service extended to the area made more remote commuting possible, and the gaming/racetrack industry and Harpers Ferry National Park were the only other resources attracting people — and thus commercial development — to the area. The idea wasn’t like putting a tire-burning biz out your back window — it was a relatively harmonious vision, or so it seemed.

But now there are serious problems:

* Due to the mortgage meltdown, many developers are now in the tank, financially. We will soon know more about the banks. But, locally, they probably don’t have enough dough to bribe one of the horses at the racetrack, much less dominate a political contest over their “vision” in the current environment. Whatever growth was projected from the bedroom plan is gone.

* Foreclosures here have increased 600 percent in the past year, with more to come. Proposals have been placed on the table to mitigate the impact of the mortgage crisis – such as assisting homeowners to renegotiate as many troubled mortgages as possible before foreclosure. For it was the homeowners who were the only parties who were bound to the agreements and contracts that built the homes and defined their environment and who were not present and had no voice in any of this.

* Neither developers nor their political friends were required to insure that the educational or other public service consequences of this development would be funded. Thus there is the result, as in many rural areas, that residential zoning costs much more in public funds than it returns in revenue, whereas commercial and agricultural zones typically pay more than they receive. The schools are seriously underfunded — “they could do with some paint,” one townsperson put it.

* The impact of the bedroom community concept has not been trivial. Commuter traffic has choked off access to the national park and gaming/racetrack resources. There may be some relief there: the rising price of gas is making the commute to the remote bedrooms simply unbearable.

* Agriculture, other than niche, boutique products, is doomed if the bedroom philosophy prevails as in the past. Of course, it may be doomed anyway.

The public meetings will be a “firestorm of anxiety,” as one local official opined. Into the debate come all the concerns reflecting huge and still growing losses of net worth in the primary financial assets of the “middle class” — their homes.

Onto the table has also come a professional proposal drafted by an allegedly “legendary” public development consultant, to promote very European, higher-density, lower-cost zones surrounded by “greenbelts.” The presentation is very appealing in its concepts of increased shared but sustainable space surrounded by a very green communal landscape. But — there is that irritating missing middle part — what’s the real economic development plan that’s going to pay for the new vision?

Isn’t this another, more “progressive,” version of the bedroom economy?

The production of competitive, sustainable goods and services is the only practical alternative to the “bedroom philosophy.” There is no plan for that here. It may not be the kind of vision you can purchase from a legendary consultant.

Hey reader! Got any good ideas or resources for sustainable rural economic development? Please, send them on.

Everybody’s talking local politics like I have not seen in many years.

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” poem nicely describes, metaphorically, the acts we are going to perform: We meet our neighbors, and re-walk the walls and boundaries between us, to inspect them, repair them, redefine them, or perhaps agree that there’s something in our natural or mutual interest that neither loves nor longer needs a wall at all.

Happy holidays.