The pervasive stench of an intensive hog farm/factory at mealtime, the airborne drift of pesticides into your child’s room, incessant traffic noise while you attempt to read, work or sleep, thousands of cars suddenly passing your house each day because of a new casino down the road—these are but a few of the potential conditions that could ruin an otherwise ideal country home place.
Those who promote or sell real estate rarely point out all the negatives of a property, much less the surrounding area. Natives of a place may have over many years become so accustomed to a negative condition that they simply don’t even notice it anymore. Long-time residents are often inured to eyesores, smells, sounds, pollution. Chambers of commerce do not send out brochures about such conditions. In this chapter we explore those negative conditions of place that, once discovered, may remove that place from your consideration.
Places that boom and bust
Calvin Beale reported that many mining, resort-retirement and exurban fringe counties grew by 40 to 50 percent or more in population from 1970 to 1980, especially in the West and Florida. He observed that growth at these rates is next to impossible for a small community to endure without negative results. Water and sewer facilities, schools, medical and social agencies, crime rates, roads and other issues and services are impacted hard, with local agencies often unable to cope. He noted that it is important to determine what part of the growth cycle a place is in.
The boom and bust syndrome common to mountain towns that are dependent on mining employment first causes fast demand for services and then later closes stores and empties schools. In Country Careers Jerry Germer wrote: “In the last century, mining towns like Virginia City, Nevada, or Park City, Utah, became ghost towns practically overnight when their single economic base was exhausted.” Areas heavily into agriculture also have an uncertain future. The current trend is for fewer people using larger machines to farm more acres. Meat production has largely moved to factory-like operations. Agricultural areas are therefore likely to continue to decrease in population.
Any place where one company or a military base dominates the employment scene is a disaster waiting for a layoff or federal budget cut. The exception is when a company is very stable, for instance Hershey Chocolate Company, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, population 11,860. Given the human penchant for anything sweet, Hershey will be selling kisses for a very long time.
Not just small places boom and bomb. Joel Garreau relates how during the 1980s New England was electrified by an economic boom so strong that in one decade it lifted New England from the poorest region in America to the richest. The extraordinary business growth used up prime space so fast that growth stopped, then nose-dived. In the early 1990s the Massachusetts Miracle became the Massachusetts Massacre. Wyoming’s population soared 41 percent in the 1970s, based on coal and oil demand. In the 1980s worldwide oil prices dropped and thousands of Wyomingites lost their jobs and left the state.
City fringe areas
Part of the difficulty of measuring city-to-rural migration patterns is that cities have annexed suburban areas and even rural areas and continue to try to increase their official metropolitan area. In Where To Make Money: A Rating Guide To Opportunities in America’s Metro Areas, G. Scott Thomas reports that “The federal government has given the metropolitan designation to some areas that are decidedly unmetropolitan, places like Grand Forks, ND; Casper, WY; Enid, OK.” The purpose is power—salaries and profits fed by votes, taxes, government largesse. Revenues generated by expansion areas will partly be used to mollify inner city residents as living conditions continue to decline. The fringes of these metropolitan areas may appear rural but they are often adversely affected by city regulations and city taxes. Buy land far from city fringes disguised as country.
Towns between cities less than four hours apart often become bedroom communities that then become cities. Some are planned that way. Columbia, Maryland, located midway between Baltimore and Washington D.C., was founded in 1963 as a planned community on 14,000 acres of farmland. In 1967 the buyers moved into the first of ten planned villages, named Wilde Lake. (Putting an “e” on the end of a place name adds cachet—and dollars to the price. Ye Olde Towne Taverne would be worth a fortune.) By 1995 Columbia had almost 100,000 inhabitants.
Unsafe at almost any speed—growth and developmentEconomic growth is not only unnecessary, but ruinous.
During my search in the 1970s I consciously avoided areas close to major highways or railroads, two criteria for major manufacturers. If you treasure open space, peace and quiet you will also avoid small towns and their surrounding areas that have locations and features attractive to large corporations in their quest for lower wages and taxes and fewer regulations.
When developers and preservationists clash, the latter often lose. In Edge City, Joel Garreau says developer John Tilghman Hazel, Jr., has so rapidly transformed entire Northern Virginia landscapes that his vanquished opponents have been “reduced to describing him in satanic terms—no less than the Prince of Darkness and the Father of Lies.”
I can imagine the outcry: “This guy is anticapitalism!” Nope, just anti-growth for growth’s sake and especially for ideal country places. Yeah, I know our economy is based on the growth theory. And the next dictum is that the government must keep growth happening. That’s part of why economists’ predictions are worthless—too much meddling with natural laws. To know where the economy was going we have watched where the politicians were going. But through overuse, they seem to have worn out the steering mechanism—money.
Politicians appear to believe that human laws are more intelligent than natural laws. I once accepted an invitation to a luncheon with our visiting congressman. The conversation was mainly on the agricultural economy and the various new government programs being considered. The congressman and the others lamented at length that “nothing seems to work anymore.” The devil made me do it—with manifest naiveté, I observed: “Supply and demand used to work quite well.” Instant silence and lowered eyes. Forks pushed salad around. I boldly pushed forward: “Perhaps we should consider having fewer, not more programs.” Well, that was that—I was never invited again. Damned troublemaker.
It’s not that simple, of course. Strict supply and demand would result in the superrich lions and us poor lambs. Alas, until the Golden Rule becomes universally genetically implanted, we humans will continue to need some traffic signals to keep us from tromping all over each other.
Growth does not equal progress or health. And fast growth can destroy the good qualities of any place or community. I will keep reminding you that cities once were villages and small towns, ideal places now ruined by growth.
Finding a place that is growth-resistant will help ensure that the qualities that attracted you will remain. There are some land characteristics that restrain or retard growth, like scarce water, or huge deserts with no valuable minerals underground. Those are not what we’re looking for. The ideal country place has highly desirable features for our purposes but is a place that no industrialist or developer would give a second look. A developer’s or manufacturer’s list of negatives includes poor transportation routes, insufficient work force, anti-growth laws, land parcels too small to be profitably developed, wild-eyed obstructionists, snail darters and spotted owls—all of which indicate a potential ideal home place.
It is not uncommon to find small town citizens who honestly believe that growth will raise their quality of life. Calvin Beale, in a 1985 talk titled “Rural Development in Perspective,” told of a billboard outside a small Wisconsin town. The sign read:WELCOME TO
Said Beale: “Here, in a nutshell, the basic modern dilemma of rural America is expressed. On one hand there is the ardent assertion of the idyllic, fulfilling quality that life in a small community can have, but then tempered by the necessity to invite the serpent of industry into the garden if people are to have the means to live there.”
If you are considering living in or near a small town, talk to the people there who make growth happen—bankers, bureaucrats, business people. Act like you might favor some growth and check their reaction. If you want things to stay the way they are as long as possible, avoid places with growth-oriented chambers of commerce. If they persist, they will get growth—but they may destroy the soul of their town.
People in wonderful small towns often just don’t understand how quickly growth can destroy the qualities of their community. Following the lead of states, many low-population areas are wooing business. Typical is the following ad from the Los Angeles Times February 13, 1994:
Our community is the best-kept secret in America. An abundance of talented, friendly labor to help you reach the potential you deserve. Labor costs are favorable
because of the area’s low cost of living. We need small to medium size expansion or developing industries. Let us help you help us. Incentives, training,
quality of lifestyle. Contact:
Judge Larry Whitaker, 502-283-3213
Judge Dudley Cooper, 502-298-4400
or Wayne Evans, 1-800-844-3553
By the way, I suspect the two judges in the ad are county judges, citizens elected to administer county business affairs; in some Midwest counties they are called county commissioners, in others, judges. Some even do settle minor legal disagreements.
Unchecked economic growth can quickly become a curse. Paradise can be found and lost in short order, especially if it is within commuting distance of cities and therefore desirable to large corporations. Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, went from country crossroads to sloppy suburb in a single decade. Controlled-growth programs are the typical response of town planners. I recommend a town too small to afford or need a planner.
I expound on this theme of avoiding potential development because I know the pain it can cause. Once you find and buy your ideal country home place you will likely make substantial improvements. You will invest yourself in your property and in the community. Inevitably that place will become even more special to you. A friend in Arlington, Texas, told me of an elderly couple evicted from their home by the eminent domain proceeding used to create space for the Texas Motor Speedway. For decades the family had planted a tree to commemorate each significant family event, the birth of each child and grandchild, graduations, marriages. The price given them for their modest home did not allow buying in the same area, let alone the cost of transplanting many mature trees. Where their beloved trees once grew is now a barren parking lot.
In 1932 Helen and Scott Nearing purchased a remote Vermont maple farm and then spent nearly twenty years building gardens and stone buildings. In 1947 a paper company began denuding the mountain above them. Once the trees were gone, ski slopes were developed and advertised. By the fall of 1951, those activities plus unannounced drop-ins so destroyed their lifestyle that the Nearings moved to Maine and, at advanced ages, started over.
I have advised against buying too little land. Even moderate-size parcels may provide inadequate protection of peace and quiet. In An American Homeplace Donald McCaig finds farmer/writer Wendell Berry contemplating the possible need to leave his cherished 75 acres of Kentucky land because a developer had bought the acreage next door and planned to “erect and sell dozens of tacky weekend camps.” When the plan faltered, Berry was able to buy the land and preserve the nature of his place.
A really large parcel next door is a gilt-edged invitation to developers. In the Afterword of Maine Farm, Stanley Joseph writes that: “Developers have subdivided the four hundred acres bordering our land [part of Helen and Scott Nearing’s place] into forty lots, and million-dollar houses are going up.” One can imagine what that will do to the peace and quiet. And the taxes. Beemers and polo ponies. There goes the neighborhood.
Development typically moves out from cities and towns in more or less concentric rings, often burgeoning at highway intersections. Sometimes it takes big jumps. Features such as rivers, lakes and other tourist attractors are like magnets to developers. Beware of buying near large plots held by speculators waiting for the right time to build new communities or commercial developments. Staying far from main highways and railroads helps ensure low development potential but is no guarantee by itself. If a development is announced near your private Utopia, about all you can do is prepare to suffer the sights, sounds, traffic and increased taxes, sell and move, or loudly announce your own plans—a large skunk ranch operation. Put up a big sign: Skunks Bought, Sold, Traded.Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
Sounds seem to travel farther in the country, where background covering din is reduced to bird songs and wind through the trees. When our winds reverse their normal pattern I sometimes hear the sounds of a gravel dredging operation many miles away.
One way to discover potential negative sounds is to camp on the property. In Goodby City Hello Country Julie Hayward and Ken Spooner relate the experience of a family who had fallen in love with a beautiful piece of land in northwestern Arkansas. After making a deposit and signing a contract, the family camped on the property. That night, “As they tried to sleep they heard the roar of trucks on Highway 70.” The next day they walked away from their deposit and bought another property, one with appropriate country night sounds—hooting owls and yapping coyotes.
Theme centers, recreation resorts, reservations
Yep, reservations. Who would have thought that activity on Native American reservations might one day destroy surrounding settlers’ rural atmosphere? Well, at least one has and others are trying. Some might consider the situation poetic justice. Some might include me.
It all started after Congress passed a 1988 law enabling tribes to open casinos. Poor tribes saw hope and went into action. Now 140 tribes operate gambling
establishments in 22 states (Internet), 123 tribes in 24 states (Business Week), or 126 tribes in 19 states (Time, 4-1-96), take your pick.
Update: Per Wikipedia, as of 2008 there are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States, about 200 of which operate casinos.
Foxwoods Resort Casino has current revenues estimated to be at least $850 million per year. Nevada? Nope, southeastern Connecticut, an area of tiny villages, rolling hills and centuries-old farms. The Mashantuckett Pequot, a Native American tribe numbering about 350, found financing in Malaysia and a management team in Atlantic City. Agreeing to pay the state 25 percent of slot machine revenues or $100 million per year, whichever is greater (about $135 million during fiscal year 1994-1995), bought state approval. In three years the casino went from an entrepreneurial dream to an enterprise that dominates the area, employing nearly 10,000 and clogging roads with 25,000 cars per day.
The Pequot and local non-Native Americans are now engaged in a modern Indians-versus-settlers war on the issue of annexing more land to the 1,230-acre reservation. (Pequot is from Pekawatawog, “the destroyers.” They were the most feared tribe in New England until the colonists massacred most of them in 1637. Two reservations were created in 1655 on Connecticut’s Mystic River. Now they’re getting even.) The weapons today are referendums and zoning laws. Things look bad for the white man. Future tribal plans include building two golf courses, a theme park, tennis courts, a skeet-shooting range and a $100-million museum and research center.
Foxwoods has become a model for other reservations across the U.S., which to a certain extent are “nations within a state,” hoping to cash in on the gambling bonanza. States see gambling as the least objectionable way to raise revenue since the creation of sin taxes. Not everybody is happy about the Native American edge. Donald Trump is pursuing legal avenues to try to stop the drain on his Atlantic City revenues.
Reservations are attractive venues to those who want to do things that would have tough sledding if proposed for non-reservation land. Prairie Island on the Mississippi River near Minneapolis is owned by the Mdewakanton Sioux. Northern State Power (NSP) wants to expand the nuclear waste depository on the island. It seems that NSP has finally offered enough wampum. The Twin Cities Reader (1-24-96) reported: “In 1994, during a heated controversy, the Legislature limited to 17 the number of casks NSP could build for dry-cask storage at the site. The legislation also required NSP to search for an alternative storage site in Goodhue County, away from the Mississippi River. . . . ‘First it was a health and safety issue and now it’s a monetary issue,’ says one insider, who expects that the agreement will roll out in the form of a new legislative proposal by the end of the week.”
A caution is in order regarding the following map of Native American locations. Many state reservations can be located only by studying large-scale maps in an atlas—and I advise you to do so. For instance, the Pequot are mentioned in various books but their location is not mapped. About four percent of California’s 200,000 Native Americans live on one of 83 reservations. Altogether, the U.S. government recognizes 555 tribes. In an April 1994 speech, President Clinton reiterated the government’s commitment to self-determination and sovereignty for tribal governments. Remote locations may preclude development—reservations most likely to be successful as casino locales are those situated within easy driving distance of large population centers.
While Walt Disney World, near Orlando, is the largest U.S. theme park and attracts the most visitors, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, Six Flags over Texas in Arlington, Texas, and other states, and the many Lion Country Safari and other theme parks attract millions of tourists each year. Theme parks initially need a large parcel of low-priced land—read rural. Once established, the parks generate other businesses, higher prices, higher taxes, high traffic volume. Goodbye country.
Disney’s proposed historical theme park at Manassas, Virginia, near Civil War battlefields has failed, at least for now. Mickey’s corporate masters bought a big plantation, quietly bought options on a total of 3,000 acres, won the governor over and were confidently working their way past zoning challenges and outraged citizens. The “little guy” property owners in Prince William County got testy. They felt pretty sure that the projected 77,000 cars per day would have a negative effect on their peace and quiet. One nearby landowner referred to the proposed development as “Disneyopolis.” Sometimes you can beat city hall. So many people fought the plan that politicos feared for their jobs. Pluto finally left town with his tail between his legs.
Places that are just too beautiful may create the small-town-turned-resort syndrome that has become a paradigm in the West. Tourism is often seen as economic salvation for small towns losing their people to other places with more jobs. A touch of tourism may leave a town intact but spectacular natural features often bring big development and big change. In Little Town Blues: Voices from the changing West, Raye C. Ringholz shows how tourism has drastically changed Sedona, Arizona; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Aspen, Colorado; and Moab, Utah—in all cases started by locals seeking to increase jobs. Ringholz writes: “If there’s a mountain to hike or ski, redrock backcountry to explore, a waterway to play on, or a desert oasis to green into a golf course, it’s being developed by entrepreneurs with hordes of tourists and recreationers hard on their heels. Within a few short years, the immigrants follow and authentic mining camps, rustic cow towns, pioneer farming communities—historic signatures of the American West—succumb to cosmetic changes that leave them little resemblance to their original selves. Even worse, they all start to look alike.”
Development of all kinds increases traffic, taxes, prices. It inevitably increases the number of land-use laws and regulations. While casinos, theme parks, recreation resorts and other tourist attractors may be fun to visit, they all have the potential to drastically change an area, perhaps destroying the community that drew you there. Whether such development will occur depends on local attitudes, natural features and proximity to transportation routes. The combination of seductive scenery and aggressive local business people almost guarantees that such development will occur.
Military bases are often major polluters with no one to keep them in line. A case in point: Time, 2-12-96, under the head “Chemical Time Bombs,” noted there have been 2,100 reported incidents of leakage inside the chemical weapons “igloos” used for storage on military bases. In 1995, 60 workers at the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama were evacuated and one was hospitalized after the nerve gas sarin leaked from an M-55 rocket. Military bases should not be considered a stable employment base. And their male personnel should not be allowed near your daughters without a chaperone. (Just kidding—I was one and I was nice. Honest.)
Flight paths—the invasion of paradise
Modern jet airports require large amounts of space. New ones are typically built away from cities in sparsely populated areas. Living under a designated flight path is enduring a sound track from hell. As you narrow your search you will want to determine if your chosen area includes airports and their attendant flight paths. I recommend you make a very thorough investigation. From maps and conversations with locals, find out where the nearest airport is located. Find someone there who can show you on a map where the local flight paths are. Talk to your potential neighbors. Contact the Federal Aviation Administration. If you can’t get the information you need, call your congressperson. Call the President. Unless you love airplanes more than life itself, call God if necessary, but do get the facts on all flight paths in your chosen area, including those used by military aircraft, upon which no requirement for noise control is imposed, so their roar is greater than that of commercial aircraft. It is that important. While my experience may be out of the ordinary, I have visited people who live under flight paths. Conversation necessarily stops when a jet goes overhead. I like airplanes. They are a safe, efficient way to travel. But over a residence and a garden they are noise pollution and air pollution.
I had lived on my place for several weeks and was working in the garden one morning when an earthshaking roar came up the hollow. The hair on my neck stood straight out as the roar materialized into a very-low-flying bomber painted dull gray with no identifying marks, with what appeared to be metal shutters covering the windshield. It came directly at me. I staggered, my intellect did a full stop, I braced myself to die (your life does not flash before your eyes). A cerebral neuron finally fired and I realized that I was experiencing the beginning of the end of the world. This Darth Vader-like apparition was from the evil empire, sneaking in under radar, committed to vaporize some nearby secret military target. My world would end with a blinding nuclear explosion. The monster thundered by directly overhead, its bomb doors clearly visible.
Time passed. Surprised that I still lived, I staggered inside and used the telephone. A neighbor calmed me. Somewhat. It was one of ours. It was a training mission. A pilot was being trained to fly under Russian radar. More would come. They practiced 500 feet above the ground, inches above my airspace. They practiced using instruments only. None had crashed—yet. They came, I was told, from a Strategic Air Command base up near Kansas City. They came on an infrequent, unpredictable, but endless basis. Yes, calls had been placed, letters had been written. There was, I was told, nothing to be done about it.
It was for more than the usual reasons that I celebrated the end of the Cold War. And I freely admit that I experienced selfish thoughts when military budget cuts were announced.
Still they came over, stopping phone conversations in mid-sentence, spewing jet fuel exhaust onto our organic garden.
Finally we found a phone number that reached a radar tracking station sergeant who reported our situation to his captain who contacted a major at the squadron where the bombers are based. Someone who works for the major called. He said they would come soon with a global positioning device that would pinpoint our location so they could instruct their pilots to avoid us. We waited. The day they were supposed to be here they called and said the weather was going to be windy so they couldn’t fly down to see us. I guess Air Force guys don’t drive. Do wars stop because of wind? “Hello, General Swinekiller, this is General Goodguy. Our weather people say the wind will be up tomorrow. What say we take a day off? Great! Give my regards to the missus.” Well, the major and a civilian finally showed up, used early GPS instruments to document our position, and instructed the appropriate people to avoid our area. Whew!
I recently learned that aeronautical charts showing established flight corridors may be found at any good map store. Yet another example of how I am too soon old, too late smart.
The National Priorities List (Superfund sites )Radiation leaks are caused by fools like me,
EPA Administrator Carol Browner stated that nearly 73 million people live within four miles of the more than 1,300 toxic sites on the federal priority list for decontamination (report to U.S. Senate, 9-4-97). In the last 14 years, with an expenditure of nearly $9 billion by government and billions more by private industry, the Superfund program has concluded cleanup on 220 sites. (Please see Superfund map at end of chapter 28-Toxic Pollution.)
Nuclear power plants
Following is a list of the 109 operable nuclear reactors in the United States as of December 31, 1994. Seven additional units had received construction permits by the end of 1994. Rising costs, lower electricity demand because of energy conservation, regulatory delays and citizen opposition may preclude new construction of nuclear reactors.
Browns Ferry 1, 2, & 3, Decatur
Joseph M. Farley 1 & 2, Dothan
Palo Verde 1, 2, & 3, Wintersburg
Arkansas Nuclear 1 & 2, Russellville
Diablo Canyon 1 & 2, Avila Beach
San Onofre 2, & 3, San Clemente
Connecticut Yankee, Haddam Neck
Millstone 1, 2, & 3, Waterford
Crystal River 3, Red Level
St. Lucie 1 & 2, Ft. Pierce
Turkey Point 3 & 4, Florida City
Hatch 1 & 2, Baxley
Vogtle 1 & 2, Waynesboro
Braidwood 1 & 2, Braidwood
Bryron 1 & 2, Bryon
Clinton 1, Clinton
Dresden 2 & 3, Morris
La Salle 1 & 2, Seneca
Quad Cities 1 & 2, Cordova
Zion 1 & 2, Zion
Duane Arnold, Palo
Wolf Creek, Burlington
River Bend 1, St. Francisville
Waterford 3, Taft
Maine Yankee, Wiscasset
Calvert Cliffs 1 & 2, Lusby
Pilgrim 1, Plymouth
Big Rock Point, Charlevoix
Donald C. Cook 1 & 2, Bridgman
Fermi 2, Newport
Palisades, South Haven
Prairie Island 1 & 2, Red Wing
Grand Gulf 1, Port Gibson
Callaway 1, Fulton
Fort Calhoun 1, Fort Calhoun
Seabrook 1, Seabrook
Hope Creek 1, Salem
Oyster Creek 1, Forked River
Salem 1 & 2, Salem
Indian Point 2 & 3, Buchanan
James A. Fitzpatrick, Scriba
Nine Mile Point 1 & 2, Oswego
Robert E. Ginna, Rochester
Brunswick 1 & 2, Southport
McGuire 1 & 2, Cowens Ford Dam
Shearon Harris 1, New Hill
Davis-Besse 1, Oak Harbor
Perry 1, North Perry
Beaver Valley 1 & 2, Shippingport
Limerick 1 & 2, Pottstown
Peach Bottom 2 & 3, Lancaster
Susquehanna 1 & 2, Berwick
Three Mile Island 1, Middletown
Catawba 1 & 2, Clover
H.B. Robinson 2, Hartsville
Oconee 1, 2, & 3, Seneca
Summer 1, Jenkinsville
Sequoyah 1 & 2, Daisy
Comanche Peak 1 & 2, Glen Rose
South Texas 1 & 2, Bay City
Vermont Yankee, Vernon
North Anna 1 & 2, Mineral
Surrey 1 & 2, Surrey
WNP 2, Richland
Point Beach 1 & 2, Two Creeks
Nuclear waste shipment routes
Buy property well away from interstate highways. Federal regulations require that nuclear waste shipments by truck must use the interstates. If Yucca Mountain, Nevada, becomes the national nuclear waste repository, 77,000 tons of “spent” fuel from 75 sites in 34 states (most are in the East) will travel our highways. (See map.) An official quoted in The Denver Post (9-20-95) stated that he was “not as concerned” about shipment of four million cubic feet of transuranic waste in barrels through Colorado to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Beginning in 1998, the material, plutonium-laced clothing and lab equipment will be shipped there from Rocky Flats, Idaho, and Hanford, Washington. Nevada transportation adviser Robert Halstead said Nevada may be more worried about transportation of the high-level fuel rods than their actual storage underground. States around Nevada should also be worried, he said. “It benefits us for people to know what happens in Nevada does affect them. There are two very real concerns—terrorist attacks and accidents.”
Factories, power plants, paper mills
In case you become too depressed to read the entire following chapter on toxic pollution, be advised to stay far upwind and upstream from any factory that discharges fumes or fluids into the air or water or dumps hazardous wastes nearby. And remember that wind directions occasionally reverse.
Power plants use enormous amounts of water for cooling and change local aquatic and marine ecosystems. Power plants burn various fuels and can emit huge plumes of noxious smoke. Even the most advanced flue scrubbers occasionally fail.
Paper mills create a smell that must be experienced to be believed. White paper is bleached by a chlorine process that releases deadly dioxins into waterways. And the particulates produced can combine with precipitation to create an acidic rain that will literally melt the rubber of your car’s windshield wipers. It’s not wonderful for your car’s paint either. Or your eyes, skin or lungs.
In addition to pollution, factories generate equipment sounds which, in the quiet of country, may travel substantial distances.
Agribusiness cropland and meat production
Small family farms add much that is good to the atmosphere and quality of a community. Big operations—corporate farms—tend to use large amounts of fuel, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Pesticide spraying may result in drift, airborne toxins floating over to your property. U.S. cotton farmers use over 16 million pounds of pesticides each year. Feed lots and other intensive livestock operations generate substantial animal wastes and smells. Groundwater pollution is common near these facilities. Being downwind from feedlots discourages breathing. Some specific horror stories were presented in chapter 13—Farming. If you have a pet dog, be aware that most farmers and ranchers have the legal right to shoot any dog bothering livestock. And right-to-farm laws properly protect farmers from lawsuits by people who move to the country, then complain about manure smells and the noise generated by all-night machinery operation.
Locally undesirable land uses are those enterprises and practices that our current society supports but that no one wants in their neighborhood—the NIMBY syndrome. Wastes—from household garbage to radioactive spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants—are being sent from affluent metropolitan areas to poor, low-population places. Waste management companies target vulnerable counties, then gain permission to dump their refuse by making political donations, creating a few jobs and spreading dollars around schools and other high-profile community services.
Northeastern municipalities increasingly are paying for the privilege of dumping their garbage in inland states hundreds or even thousands of miles from their own backyards. Wendell Berry reports that eastern states are trucking garbage to his home state of Kentucky. Tiny Sierra Blanca in western Texas receives daily boxcar loads of sewage sludge from New York City. It will soon become the dump site for radioactive waste from Vermont and Maine. The waste management company expects to make a $168-million profit over the next five to eight years—a crumb of which is being fed to locals to override citizens’ protestations that the practice is poisoning their land. The Toronto Star (12-21-95) reported that three of the four companies bidding for Toronto’s garbage disposal contract hope to haul the garbage south to sites in the United States, “leaving us liable for damages in the future.”
Check with the county clerk, county health office, planning department and state waste management permit officials to determine if this is happening or being considered in your targeted areas. Frankly, quite aside from pollution considerations, I would avoid buying property in any county where elected officials would consider letting such a thing happen.
A hazardous waste dump is a landfill’s brother-gone-bad. These facilities are often simply ponds lined with clay into which toxic liquids are poured. Often uncovered, rains fill and overflow the ponds. Vegetation downwind from these places often dies. I know of a San Francisco Bay Area housing subdivision that was constructed within a quarter mile downwind of one such pond. The women there experienced a high rate of pregnancy problems and babies were born with abnormalities. Landscaping vegetation routinely died. The waste dump owners of course denied responsibility.
At the end of 1996, the federal prison system was estimated to be operating at 25 percent over capacity while state prisons were estimated to be operating at 16 to 24 percent over their highest rated capacity. Not surprisingly, the current trend is to build more prisons. According to Corrections Compendium, 99 new prisons were built in 1993; another 52 were planned for the 1994-1995 fiscal year. With an average of 5.8 new prisons built or planned per state, Texas is keeping its steel and concrete contractors happiest—it built 14 in 1993 and has plans for another 30. Runners-up are North Carolina-13, and Florida-10. Over 40 states are building new prisons or expanding existing ones. Oregon plans to build seven new prisons for $1 billion. The political response to escalating crime is “three strikes and you’re out,” which will require ever more prisons—presumably until all of us are either in prison or guarding those who are (The Dept. of Justice, 6-22-97, reported that one of every 118 American males is behind bars). Most new prisons are built in rural areas. Check with someone at the state level to determine sites being considered for new prisons. The governor’s staff can direct you to someone who knows. Be persistent.
Laws, codes, and regulations
Freedom is one of the basic tenets of high-quality life. We have lost many of our original freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. This has occurred gradually over a long period of time and we don’t think about it much anymore. We just accept the condition as one of the many features of modern life to which we must submit.
One of the most pleasurable conditions I found in my adopted county was the almost total lack of laws, codes and regulations for building. There is no zoning commission to say what must go where; there is no building inspector to demand fees or sets of plans and to make surprise inspections. The only “enforcement” I have experienced came from the local electric co-op, whose lineman inspected the rewiring work I had performed in our house. It was more of a free service to be sure the wiring was safe. I welcomed the inspection; had a recommendation been made I would gladly have made the appropriate correction.
The downside to lack of codes and enforcement is that buildings may be built using unsafe methods and designs. While a bad floor plan may merely be inconvenient, a badly-designed or -constructed flue could kill you.
The farther you locate away from cities the more likely you are to find such conditions as in my county. Beware of “rural” counties that lie within metropolitan areas where city codes and regulations are enforced. Such enforcement is not only degrading of personal freedom, it requires taxes to pay for it. Paying salaries and overhead for people to enforce city rules and regulations is not a part of high-quality country living.
Eminent domain law allows the state to condemn and take your property for the public good, as for a park or a new highway. Most of the many dams built by the Corps of Engineers created lakes on land once owned by individuals, land often in the same family for generations. In some cases, whole towns were moved.
Besides outright taking (through mandatory sale), some state laws also allow use of the power to obtain rights-of-way. The March/April 1992 issue of Harrowsmith Country Life reported the story of an artist who bought land in Wyoming’s Owl Creek Range, looking forward to peace and quiet. That ended when a judge upheld an obscure state law to let a Denver oil company commandeer, widen and use a road through the middle of her property to move well-drilling equipment to a site on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land.
That article exposed the fact that condemnation laws in most western states give private companies eminent domain powers normally reserved only for governments. The purpose is to encourage natural resource development by private firms.
The most egregious use of eminent domain I have heard of was to obtain land for construction of the previously cited Texas Motor Speedway in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Apparently the great State of Texas assigns its eminent domain power to private development companies. Approximately one-hundred homeowners were forced to sell their homes so the speedway could be built. The same tactic is being used to create space for sports stadiums. Another Texas caution regards mineral rights. In Texas, those who hold mineral rights to your land have surface development rights—the right to come onto your land and, for instance, drill for oil. Beware, the drilling may take place very close to your house. And the drilling company has no obligation to clean up its mess when it leaves. If it leaves.
Backing up to or being surrounded by national forest or other government-owned land seems like a good thing. Often it is not. If the federal government or its lessees need access for a logging operation, forest improvement, oil drilling or any other authorized activity and the shortest route is across your land, guess what? They will go across your land. If you object, an eminent domain proceeding almost certainly will be decided in favor of the government. That may mean that you will endure the noise and dust of logging trucks rumbling past your house from sunup to sundown, or worse. And after the forest is denuded or the oil rigs are in operation, your view will be not nearly as pleasant as before. Another reason to not buy land adjoining government land is that you will likely never have the option of buying it, should you wish to enlarge your acreage.
Eminent domain proceedings are rarely to private property owners’ satisfaction. The potential threat of eminent domain can destroy your peace of mind. Absent great overriding advantages, avoid buying property with discernible eminent domain potential.
The arid West is generally more fire-prone than the moist East. But even here in the Ozarks, which receives between 40 and 45 inches of rain each year, we have a fire season for several weeks in late winter. Fire typically burns upward, so higher elevations are at greater risk than valley bottoms, but fire can occur any place with adequate fuel, oxygen, ignition. Not only forested land is at risk. Chaparral and brush burn even faster than coniferous forests. Droughts exacerbate fire danger conditions.
“In the northeastern Sierra region, trees killed by the recent seven-year drought and subsequent bug infestation are stacking up, creating fuel ladders much like what you build in your fireplace or woodstove. . . . The pervading fear is the vast amount of fuels on these forests will catch somewhere one day and be anything but controlled. In fact, the runaway Cottonwood fire nearly burned down the town of Sierraville last year” (Timber, a Feather River Publishing Company supplement, 9-20-95).
In early 1996, grass fires consumed thousands of acres of parched grassland in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. Hundreds of homes were burned, many people were injured and hundreds were evacuated to safe areas. Nearly 50,000 acres were burned. In 1997 there were 66,196 fires that consumed 2,856,959 acres.
Beyond the danger of living in a fire-prone area, fire insurance rates reflect the zone assigned your area by insurance underwriters and the quality of fire-fighting services available as well as the type of heating unit in the house.
Only about ten percent of fires are lightning caused, so the amount and type of human activity in an area is an important factor. Should you decide to buy or build in a fire-prone area, establish and maintain a substantial fuel-free area around your buildings. Note, however, that such zones are little protection from airborne burning material.
Information on fire incidence and type history can be obtained from volunteer fire departments, paid town departments, state conservation departments and state or federal forestry departments.
We discussed floods in Chapter 9. Any low area that receives runoff from a large area can flood. The greater the watershed, the greater the possibility of flooding. In hollows and small valleys evidence of flooding can often be easily found. Leaves, twigs and other plant detritus several feet up in shrubs and small trees along a bottom are strong evidence of flooding, but their absence should not be taken as proof that the area is flood free. Talk to conservation agents, emergency personnel, newspaper employees and residents of your target area for flood history.
IsolationAnd I’ll say further that many back-to-the-landers
This is more an alert about the downside of isolation than a condition to avoid. I am not quite an isolationist but I do relish more privacy than most people seem to require. The caveat to being way out in the boonies is this: while isolation and peace and quiet go hand in hand, a personal subjective result may be loneliness. If you usually stay busy and you attend to your social needs on a regular basis you may never become lonely. But if you are accustomed to the hubbub of city activity you may find country seclusion almost overwhelming, especially after you get settled in. And be aware of the danger of having an accident and needing help when there are few people nearby.
Your contentment will be affected by the lifestyle and values of those who already live where you will go. Consider the nature of a place. Cattle, hog, sheep and poultry producers have different values than vegetarians. In wild areas, old-timers still kill hawks, eagles, coyotes and wolves on sight—laws be damned. This may merely sadden most of us but would wound passionate birders and environmentalists. If these people become your neighbors, how will their activities impact your values and lifestyle?
Specific places and conditions to avoid
(In all cases, places downwind or downwater from pollution sources are at greatest risk.)
• Retired and active landfills, toxic and hazardous waste sites. No matter how well built—and many were not—they all eventually leak or overflow.
• Toxic waste incinerator vicinities. Smoke and ash from these devices can be deadly.
• Mining areas. Toxic tailings and water-filled mines contaminate groundwater and surface waterways.
• Agribusiness areas. Pesticide drift and groundwater contamination, stench from intensive meat-production operations, potential for huge excrement floods. (It has already happened.)
• Near major highways. The Wisconsin propane spill that forced evacuation of a town underscored again the danger that shipping routes pose.
• “In addition to the San Joaquin Valley in California, there are major concentrations of pesticide use throughout the Midwest, especially Iowa and Illinois, as well as along the Mississippi River, in a band across the Southeast coastal plain, and in the states of Florida and Washington. Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio all account for larger shares of pesticide use than does California” (Goldman—see Recommended reading below).
• Near active or retired nuclear reactors.
• Industrial areas. Western Pennsylvania. Wherever there is industry there are hazardous wastes. Three-quarters of all hazardous waste produced in the United States originates in chemical factories and laboratories.
• Near paper mills. Paper mill effluents contain deadly dioxin compounds and sulfites. Dioxin’s effects on laboratory animals are so lethal that some scientists rank it among the most poisonous substances known.
• Along major rivers with industry or agribusiness upstream. Jim Robbins (The Last Refuge) reports that a billion gallons of waste pour into the Columbia River every day from agricultural and municipal sewage.
• “The world’s largest hazardous waste site sits between Geiger and Emell [Alabama]” (Setterberg and Shavelson, below).
• “National Wildlife magazine once called Triana, Alabama the ‘unhealthiest town in America’” (Setterberg and Shavelson).
• Yucca Mountain, 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, may become the nation’s nuclear waste disposal place. So far, three billion dollars have been spent “studying” the site. A large packet of information, including “Why Nevada is Opposed to Yucca Mountain,” is available from: State of Nevada, Agency for Nuclear Projects, Nuclear Waste Project Office, Capitol Complex, Carson, NV 89710.
Other places to avoid
• Towns with parking meters—the people who run the town either have a parking problem, a tax problem or a values problem—all conditions to stay
• Places with strong chambers of commerce pushing for growth.
• Places with planning boards or commissions. If there are none and also no building department to torment you with fees, regulations, quadruplicate plans and inspections you may have hit the jackpot.
• Any place within sound of a highway or commercial business.
• Developments that have displaced serious wildlife. The State of Montana now has an official form: The Mountain Lion Response Form. The form asks: “What action did the lion take?” Answer choices: “1) Watched person; 2) Growled; 3) Hissed; 4) Showed teeth; 5) Lip curl; 6) Fled; 7) Crouched; 8) Attacked; 9) Other.”
And, from writer Richard Todd: “You should be able to drive away from your farm in either direction and reach a tractor dealer before you come to a fast-food outlet.” (“A Place in the Country,” Harrowsmith Country Life, January-February 1992)
Resources and recommended reading
A Livestock Producer’s Legal Guide to Nuisance, Land Use Control, and Environmental Law costs $12 from American Farm Bureau Federation, 225 Touhy Avenue, Park Ridge, IL 60068.
For more information on contaminated military installations, contact Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403. Phone: 410-263-1584; fax: 410-263-8944.
• Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
• Goldman, Benjamin A. The Truth About Where You Live: An atlas for action on toxins and mortality. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1991.
• Setterberg, Fred and Lonny Shavelson. Toxic Nation: The Fight to Save Our Communities from Chemical Contamination. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993.
And for a more sane solution to prison overcrowding than simply building more prisons, read Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society, by Peter McWilliams, Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 1993.