Posted Land

As John Donne put it 350 years ago, “No man is an island.” To which we might add, “no matter how rich.”

A real estate developer named Radcliffe Romeyn Jr., who “attended Harvard,” is inveighing to created an “equine community” of 24 houses on a former 110-acre dairy farm on the west side of Hinesburg. The farm is characterized by rolling meadow and extraordinary views spanning the Green Mountains from Mount Mansfield to Mount Abraham.

A farmer next door would like very much to use and keep the fields in agricultural use, but cannot afford the purchase price — which the widow who owns the land deserves to get for her and her departed husband’s 30-year stewardship, and the animals they raised on it.

Romeyn’s project will not be a “gated” community per se, but it will be marketed as a community with equine interests — in essence, a high-density, high-priced development under the guise of agricultural use. One need not have a horse, however, to buy a home there.

Back in the 1950s, if someone in my hometown of Morrisville, or even neighboring Stowe, were asked to define a “gated community,” the answer might be “. . . a pasture, I s’pose.” The concept of a closed and exclusive enclave was alien. Morrisville embraced a wide variety of eccentric individuals. Tony neighborhoods did exist, of course, but they were hardly monotone economically. In the ’50s, Morrisville resembled a merger of St. George and upper Spear Street, except instead of mobile homes there were older farmhouses, and in place of “McMansions” there were large Victorians with welcoming verandas.

Sarge, the bank president, lived several houses away from “Crazy Chase,” the town’s only out cross-dresser and fiddler for the annual town dances at the Fire Department. Mr. Chase walked purposefully about town dressed in a plain cotton dress, with rolled-up nylon stockings and black, mid-heel, laced shoes, his gray hair in a bun, swinging his big black purse as if it were a plumber’s tool bag.

We lived in a motley clutch of houses and farms. Next door lived Dr. Bill Guthmann, one of two dentists in town, and his wife Flo, who loved theater. Cliff and Marie Collette, who owned a small engine-repair service, lived across the street. Volney and Gladys Farr managed a marginal farm up the street and sold us eggs and butter. Next to them was the struggling Kyle Stewart Farm and, further up, a fatherless family with two boys cared for by the Morrisville Overseer of the Poor. Next came the Morrisville Dump (landfills had not been invented), and further still on Washington Highway was Greaves Dairy, where we got our milk.

Although everyone in Morrisville was white, there was a full-spectrum socio-economic mixture of French-Canadian, Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Italian residents who filled four or five churches. Surviving street names such as Irish Settlement Road and French Settlement Road indicate that ethnic communities occasionally clustered into sub-communities, either by choice or to protect and re-enforce their cultures. The service at Holy Family Catholic Church blended French, Latin and English. In fact, during Vermont’s brief flirtation with the Klan in the ’30s, cloaked members had to content themselves with harassing French-Canadian immigrants, as there were no African-Americans or Jews in Morrisville.

What accounted for this cohesive force within our communities? Was it the aquarium-like transparency of our small-scale communities, the difficulty of retaining secrets or remaining anonymous? Or was it the periodic harshness of winter or economic downturns, which even today forces us to adhere in adversity? Newcomers to Vermont in the early days of Stowe’s ascendancy as a ski area often hired native Vermonters to remove snow and effect repairs, yet a Vermonter helping a flatlander extract his Mercedes from a snow-filled ditch with a tractor and a log chain did not expect a fee. This was a tenet of community.

How is this relevant to today, and why does it matter? The diversity of our communities and the temperature of our local economies are important indicators of who we are as a people. We like to believe we have a deep sense of community in Vermon, and for the most part we do. It will be important to watch, however, as the influx of people from Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa infuse themselves into our existing white-bread communities.

How does Vermont differ from, say, Florida — for decades a winter tax haven or a retirement Valhalla for northerners? Except in older communities such as Key West, Florida offers the quintessence of communal monotony. From retirement mobile-home parks where one can get by on Social Security — or maybe a part-time job at Wal-Mart — to gated, waterfront communities for the haute bourgeoisie, newer communities in Florida are stratified entirely by income. One can live in a place where all dwellings look more or less alike, buy the same groceries as everyone else, and never have to see neighbors who inspire pity, sympathy or jealousy except through the window of an air-conditioned car.

Community is fragile and worth understanding and protecting. It’s the next concentric ring beyond self, family and friends. In many ways it defines Vermont: our town meetings, citizen legislature, farmers’ markets, co-ops and village commons. At the heart of our communities is a sense of the commonweal — the common good.

To sacrifice this to what the neocons call the “ownership society” would be a terrible loss. There is a “terrible twos” aspect to this language — it’s like the 2-year-old’s litany of “mine . . . mine.” It manifests in new landowners posting large chunks of property — more than they will probably ever walk on themselves. And it challenges the concept of eminent domain . In the neocon view, everything must be owned. There is no common property. This view runs counter to the basis of community, in which adhesion comes from shared values, resources, cultures and costs.

To be sure, ownership is intrinsic and valuable. In cultures with no ownership whatsoever, there is little economic incentive or industry, only scrabbling for survival. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto makes a compelling case that lasting peace can only be achieved by establishing legal systems, in countries where there are none, for conveying and maintaining land ownership for the indigenous poor. When our own country was being formed, the land-grants system was critical for the early success of industry and the formation of communities.

Still, ownership is transient in the end. Community, like friendship, endures. We Vermonters must balance ownership with stewardship and a sense of community. As John Donne put it 350 years ago, “No man is an island.” To which we might add, “no matter how rich.”

Maintaining the equilibrium between community and ownership requires dialogue and vigilance. We must work to protect the balance within which our increasingly diverse communities can thrive. The day we begin to see gated enclaves for something other than livestock is the day we’ve lost what we most value in Vermont. Is “equine community” a euphemism for exclusive?

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