The man came to me, explaining with unassailable logic why, in the face of a tax revaluation that threatened to tear the communities of Jackson County apart, his quiet community by the river would be safe from the proposed 4,000-acre development of golf courses and mountain mansions.
“Two percent of the people in this country own 97 percent of the wealth.” he said. “With the markets and the economy, a lot of them are hurting; there aren’t enough of them left to buy this place up.”
I’ve heard slightly different figures about how few rich people hold so much of everything, but rather than argue with the man about statistics, I merely pointed out that 2 percent of the population was 6 million rich folks. If 2 percent of them thought a mountain getaway with views and amenities was a wonderful thing, then that meant that 120,000 were looking for land and surely, I pointed out, 850 of them could be found to buy a piece of paradise in Tuckaseigee.
“Well, it still won’t happen,” he said, undaunted. “I know a lady that drives all the way from Glenville to Cashiers just to get her mail, because she wants a Cashiers address. Tuckaseigee doesn’t have the name or cachet.”
Well, maybe the nearly fabulously wealthy need an address to reaffirm their position on this earth, but there are still probably 850 people who want to be unique, who are secure enough to make Tuckaseigee the new Cashiers.
His face no longer quite as confident, the man then exclaimed: “Tom Fazio (a world-famous golf-course designer) has built hundreds of courses, and he said this land is no good for a golf course. Phil Mickelson (the world-famous golfer associated with this development) has only built two courses. I’ll take Fazio’s word.”
Apart from the fact that the man probably never actually talked to Mr. Fazio to get his opinion, and apart from the fact that someone like Mr. Mickelson wasn’t actually going to drive the bulldozers—I’m guessing he has people who are happy to do that under the imprimatur of his name—it seemed to me that this was the perfect place to introduce the great wildcard of land-use planning: There is virtually nothing that can be done to stop selfish people with big checkbooks from exercising their God-given right to write big checks.
I didn’t bother, though, and I went away feeling sad for the fellow, because I knew that he was engaging in whatever mental tricks he could to tell himself that everything would be all right. A few months ago, a reporter from a local paper came to me for a quote after a group I was helping was successful in keeping a quarry out of their back yard. I suppose she wanted me to make a triumphant statement about how a group of local citizens had banded together to fight off the efforts of a developer to destroy their community. She wanted me to cheer how the little guy had won and how the system had worked. Unfortunately I could only muster a profound sadness. I knew how much effort the community had expended just to have a little peace. I knew how much worry some of the old folks had suffered through, wondering if the mountain whose shadow they had lived in for generations would be defaced. I knew the emotional cost of the fight, and I knew that sometime in the not-too-distant future another community would have to engage in another fight just to be left in peace from people who never have understood the meaning of enough.
Jackson County has just gone through its quadrennial tax revaluation, and the numbers draw a frightening picture. They say property values have gone up 67 percent on average, but the tale is much worse in parts of the county. Here in Webster, 250 percent increases are not uncommon. The politicians talk about adjusting the rate to be “revenue neutral,” but that’s a bit of deception that sounds good but is essentially meaningless to the folks who end up with significantly higher tax bills.
Last year, the Jackson County commissioners passed extensive land-use regulations: a subdivision ordinance and a steep-slope ordinance. These elegantly written pieces of legislation were distinguished by their breadth and their complexity. The commissioners have won conservation awards for their foresight and bravery in the face of the development community. But tonight there’s a man in Tuckaseigee grasping at logical straws trying to convince himself that 850 luxury homes won’t be built on top of him. And all across the county, people are opening notices of reassessment and they’re reading the handwriting on the wall: Their children will never live here; the old family land will have to be sold or divided.
Our elegant ordinances will make sure that the land is sold, subdivided and developed in an orderly manner. Land, views and quality of life will be preserved; unfortunately, it will probably be for the selfish people with big checkbooks, not for the local communities. For all the commissioners’ forward-leaning efforts, they forgot that government is often more about process than substance. They forgot that land-use is as much about people as it is about land. They forgot that preserving communities is the goal.
Tonight the man in Tuckaseigee and his neighbors and friends are organizing to fight the development company that wants to turn their community into a playground for the 2 percent. I hope they win. But if they do I won’t cheer, because I know that until our leaders get much wiser, this sadness will be repeated again and again. The 2 percent may not be many, but they never seem to run out of checks.
[Mark Jamison tends the mail and the people of Webster as postmaster.]