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Rustic Disharmony

Class Warfare is brewing in rural America as the super-affluent establish primary residences in locales far from the madding crowd.

November 01, 1998|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute

From the earliest days of the republic, the American countryside has been seen as a bastion of egalitarianism. But today, large swaths of rural America, from the rocky coast of Maine to the Rocky Mountains, are marked by class warfare caused by the increasing migration of well-heeled full- and part-time residents from metropolitan society.

This new migration is a reversal of historic U.S. migrant flows. For much of this century, Americans, especially the ambitious, left rural America for the great cities. But during the 1990s, this trend began to shift. Nonmetropolitan areas of the country gained 1.8 million people, compared with a loss of 1.4 million during the 1980s. Much of this growth, about 43%, represents outsiders moving to rural America.

The influx of city types is not equally distributed. The greatest growth has occurred in scenic places: coastal New England; the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina; and the foothills and valleys adjacent to the great western mountain ranges--the Sierras, Tetons, Wasatch, Rockies, Cascades and Sawtooths. "The upper-class dynamic is to move to very nice places where they lead the rural renaissance," says University of Michigan demographer Bill Frey. "The lower classes get to move to less appealing places."

The rush of the rich to rural havens has unsettled the local economic and social ecology. Attracted more by scenery and amenities than by good grazing land or mineral deposits, the newcomers are transforming the traditional resource-grounded economy into what Mary Chapman, senior fellow at the Denver-based Center for the New West, calls "an ephemeral economy" based largely on wealth transfers from urban areas.

"They don't want to come here to live the way we live," says Chapman, who lives in Delta, Colo., population 5,000. "They are the ones with the big houses on the ridge line. They see themselves as environmentalists, but all they are doing is creating a real estate economy."

The trend has been facilitated and sustained by the continuing decline of the indigenous resource economy--fishing, timber, coal and other mining--because of weak energy, export and commodity prices. For example, cattle ranching in the West has dropped precipitously, from about 10 million head three decades ago to barely 1 million today. Unable to live off the land, many longtime residents have had little choice but to sell their homesteads to affluent outsiders.

The most immediate impact of the newcomers can be found in housing affordability. In many places, the prices of houses have soared far beyond the means of local residents. In some of the more favored exurban retreats--Jackson Hole, Wy., and Aspen, Colo., for example--prices have more than doubled this decade. The median home price in Park City, Utah, is near that of Beverly Hills, while the average home in Aspen fetches in excess of $1 million.

Considering who is buying these properties--actor Harrison Ford, director Oliver Stone, United Surgical founder Leon Hirsch, World Bank President James Wolfensohn and former Pespico President Don Kendall, to name a few--the steep rise in prices should not be too surprising. But local young families cannot begin to compete. As a result, they move farther and farther away from their birthplaces, according to Steve Seninger, an economist at the University of Montana. "There's an imbalance that's developing," he says.

Wealthy people, to be sure, have maintained second homes in selected resort towns for generations. But because their homes are closed most of the year, the cultural and social impact of these part-timers on the locals is relatively slight. The recent growth of the super-affluent, owing largely to the bull market of the late '90s, and their migration to rural America has had far more dramatic effects. The development of the Internet, advanced telecommunications and regular air service have enabled these affluent urbanites to live year-round in the rural havens, which has accelerated the transition from a resource-based economy to one devoted to leisure-time activities and such mobile industries as software development, investment banking and telecommunications.

Their corresponding impact on the local culture often becomes more than economic. For example, many outsiders object, on environmental grounds, to hunting, ranching and mining practices. In turn, they are regarded by many locals as people who want only cappuccino parlors, good restaurants and fashionable boutiques and have little appreciation for the unspoken understandings that underpin authentic rural life. Particularly galling, says Seninger, is the newcomers' penchant for fencing off their properties, thereby denying access to local residents who had fished or hunted on the "private" ranches under previous owners.

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