Vermont: The Cost of Joining the Gentry Class

Vermont State House Garden.jpg

There’s nothing particularly modern about traditional rural gentrification. The English roots of successful upper-middle-class urbanites retiring to newly acquired country estates with large houses and small livestock flocks are 18th century or older. Perhaps its earliest American example is Alexander Hamilton’s flight from below-Wall-Street-New York City to the Haarlem that was then the farm country of northern Manhattan Island. There, with wealth accumulated from professional career and governmental service, in 1802 he bought 32 acres of tiny Dutch farms and built his McMansion, “The Grange”, on a viewshed-surrounded hilltop where he could maintain (or not) connections with power and commerce a half-day’s coach travel to the south.

Modern rural gentrification differs somewhat from its academic definition, in that it is not exclusively enabled by the power of a passive-income economic base. It is, though, at least in the theoretical model of most of those who now practice it, a near-Jeffersonian mix of productive and profitable small-scale farming coupled with a remunerative non-farm occupation most typically in the information sector or the consulting professions, commuting to work electronically from a home office or physically on a convenience and client-driven schedule.

And there’s nothing particularly modern about gentrification’s economic clout. In both its urban and rural models, it is enabled by the newcomers’ advantages in wealth and skills, whereby they can readily afford to out-bid the locals for property and can equally readily cope with whatever regulatory barriers might be erected against their unwelcome (particularly in urban re-gentrification of down-scale neighborhoods) incursions. Particularly in recent academic (and sometimes polemical) studies of supposed violations of economic and social justice, much has been made of the new-comers’ ability and readiness to price the old-timers out of their former neighborhoods, although never (to Humble Scribe's knowledge, anyway) have there been accusations that take-overs of Georgetown, DC: Roxbury, Boston: Brooklyn Heights, NYC; or Darien Street, Philadelphia, intentionally raised the overall local “cost-of-stay” so as to, in the phrase used against realtors during the white-flight episodes of the ‘60’s, “use high-bid block-busting to stimulate old-timer departure”.

In contrast, there’s at least some evidence that the recent rural gentrification pattern in Vermont is partially connected with broad-based efforts to use a policy-based raising of the state-wide cost-of-stay in pursuit of a desired state-wide (limited and controlled) low-density and esthetically-nostalgic development pattern. The Vermont anomaly, if you will, is more than just the readiness of mostly-urban newcomers to buy into a rural/small-town state, their advantage based on above-average levels of wealth, past achievement, political skills, and business acumen. The pre-existing Green Mountain State taxation, regulatory, and general business climate, as shown in numerous state rankings and analyses, is exactly the motivating set of governmental and grass-roots forces typically responsible for the out-migration of just such folks from (perhaps more normal) states like California, Illinois, Maryland, or New Jersey. In those places, the same factors that are a draw in Vermont have been causally linked to just the opposite phenomenon: upper-middle-class exodus patterns.

Historically, in-migration of just such urbanites and suburbanites to a once-truly-rural Vermont goes back to the arrival, in the late Victorian decades, of railroad magnates like Billings (to Woodstock) and Webb (to Shelburne), but is more typically illustrated by a later generation, exemplified by the Depression-era “back-to-the-land” migration of Helen and Scott Nearing from the high-rise apartments of NYC to a small farm in Jamaica, Vermont, where they grew some green beans and wrote books about “living off the land” when not on the lecture circuit. The publishing royalties for such as “Living the Good Life,” 1954, were their major but unpublicized source of active income, and, as was unrevealed until a post-mortem biography, multi-million-dollar (in today’s currency) trust funds held by both were the major source of real passive income.

The wave of back-to-the-land immigrants changed Vermont’s demographics and politics irreversibly in the decades from 1960 on, changing a then-predominantly-rural/farm population of some 360,000 with near-zero natural increase to a predominantly-urban/jobs population of some 620,000, most having chosen to migrate in from the cities and suburbs of the East Coast megapoli to practice their own best approximations of the Nearing mix of small-scale ag, commercial enterprise, and trust-fund-check-in-the-mailbox economics ever since. Despite the pretense at making a living from the land, in economic reality the critical cash flow is pension or trust-fund-based.

That quibble notwithstanding, the socio-economics of rural gentrification haven’t changed significantly (except for average age) since the first communes and hippie-yuppie colonies sprang up across Vermont in the ‘60s. Then, their members were typically college kids taking a few years off between the undergrad and grad-school years to grow veggies organically and supposedly meet cash expenses by selling them in ad hoc farmers’ markets to locals who were already quite self-sufficient, thank you, as well as to dabble in non-farm activities ranging from sex to politics. By any sociological measure, these young adults were both wealthier (family, mostly) and more educated than the rural natives they came to live amongst. Today, the new rural gentrifiers are older but similarly well situated.

Those now selecting attractive rural counties and small towns where they can settle into the Nearing model choose places like Vermont, or like Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, both attractively small enough (in the 9000 square mile range) to enable some degree of political control. If there’s a difference between Vermont and the others, it’s only that the 34000 square miles of Virginia, say, wouldn’t tolerate a state-wide raise-the-cost-of-stay as a keep-it-bucolic-and-nostalgic strategy. The Vermont incomers, having ascended to political power in a much smaller state, have indeed put in a range of policies — some covert, like raising housing costs while depressing business prospects via regulatory opacity, and some overt, like the present campaign to reduce power supplies by a third by shutting down the state’s only nuclear power generator — aimed at dissuading “growth” in favor of sustainability. A half-century earlier, Middlebury College environmentalist/advocate Douglas Burden explained it in terms of keeping the prices of residency high enough to dissuade middle-class residency, while using land use controls and similar devices to insure “keeping Vermont unattractive to additional people.” Those willing and able to pay the heightened cost-of-stay — the Vermont anomaly — would then enjoy their rarified bucolic/ nostalgic surroundings, as Charles, Murray writes, “…in a neighborhood filled with people as rich and smart as possible” much like themselves.

There’s one other aspect of the Vermont anomaly worth noting. Neither those in state government, having watched the advance of rural gentrification and now beginning to claim credit for it and offer various “project funding” vote-purchase devices, nor those actually practicing their own modified versions of “Five Acres and Independence” (the perennial USDA best-seller text for rural-gentry wannabe aspirants for over a century) have addressed the basic conceptual conflict between two ideologies dear to up-scale exurban hearts and minds.

One is “smart-growth”, which requires a small-house/small-lot in-town, walk-to-shopping trolley-to-work urban development pattern (think Portland OR), with no housing beyond the last water and sewer lines. The other is, of course, rural gentrification, which requires at least a few acres in the countryside to grow and sell veggies while using the home office to conduct electronic non-farm profitable business that actually pays for the family’s health care and the kids’ college as arugula and cilantro almost never can. It takes a certain amount of cognitive-dissonance skill to embrace both ideologies simultaneously, but, interestingly, most of the new rural gentry are up to that intellectual task. In simplified form, rural gentrification — the farmette in the country — is for them and their similarly-situated peers and neighbors; “smart-growth” is for everyone else, dissuading those of lesser standing who might otherwise actually presume to come in alongside them to raise their own few acres of apples (and generate crop-shipping truck noises which necessitated a Vermont Supreme Court challenge) and thereby spoil not only the early morning silence but the no-visible-farm-machinery viewshed. But, when smart-growth and rural gentrification finally meet on the field of political and legal combat, practitioners of the latter will be up to the challenge. George Mason Law School professor F. H. Buckley explains why and how:

“Burdensome tax and regulatory policies will be of relative advantage to the rich and powerful, who can employ specialists to work through the maze of rules that impose traps for unwary members of the middle class.” And he doesn’t even touch on Vermont’s own preferred-ten-acre-lot recent (post-‘60s and pre-smart-growth) history, the rural development policy of choice until a new ideology came along. That’s a whole ‘nother Vermont anomaly calling for a whole ‘nother commentary.

Flickr photo: Chard in the Montpelier, Vermont State House Garden, by Waldo Jaquith.

Martin Harris is a Princeton graduate in architecture and urban planning with a range of experience in fields ranging from urban renewal and air-industrial parks to the trajectory of small-town planning and zoning in states like Vermont.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Just saying thanks will not

Just saying thanks will not just be sufficient, for the fantasti c lucidity in your writing. I will instantly grab your rss feed to stay informed of any updates.female mind mastery


Hi, I'm wondering what are the differences between the active income and the passive income online. Reading this post makes me contemplate a lot of things. I am totally new about this kind of stuff.

Belgravia Villas is a new

Belgravia Villas is a new and upcoming cluster housing located in the Ang Mo Kio area, nested right in the Ang Mo Kio landed area. It is within a short drive to Little India, Orchard and city area. With expected completion in mid 2016, it comprises of 118 units in total with 100 units of terrace and 18 units of Semi-D. belgravia villas

Many who advocate smart growth don't want to live it.

Most smart growth advocates actually live in single family homes with gardens but advocate others should live in an apartment over a store. At the major university where I work that is a half hour rail commuting distance from a vibrant old center city, ready made smart growth, but apparently all the planning faculty live in single family homes and most drive to work. This is even as they advocate everyone else should live in "smart growth".

This has become a source of amusement to the graduate students. When faculty are asked about this they claim it is about "giving people choices" when it is really restricting choices, and they get very upset when this hypocrisy is pointed out.

This is not limited to faculty. A few years ago I visited an architect in a Oregon town in the Willamette valley. He had bought a one acre lot within the urban limit line, then 5 acres adjoining on the other side of the urban limit line. He was able to ride a bike along a newly built bike path to his office where he was proudly designing high density "smart growth" walk-able communities, apparently for everyone but himself. His wife drove to work.

As we had dinner admiring the gorgeous view of the undeveloped farmland they explained to me the importance of stopping any more development outside of existing urban limits in the valley. When I pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of their situation they were quite surprised and defensive. Apparently no one had pointed this out to them before. They didn't quite know what to make of it, and certainly had no intention of living in anything he was designing.

As one of our county supervisors said "smart growth is really good for everyone else".

Geography student

And from Princeton!

I doubt Mr. Harris intends to move to Vermont. His "expose" will make him unwelcome with the gentry and his pedigree suspect with the townies. :)

Unfortunately, I also doubt that his well-documented "insider" piece will shame any of the rural gentry or stop the new, younger, hipper, but no less overbearing and even more self-absorbed "smart development" crowd (and I am not sure that Mr. Harris means to).

I rely only on anectdote to perhaps show how the gentrification/"smart growth" camps will, in the end, each get enough of what they want. There may be showdown of sorts, but the history of the state's development demonstrates, I think, that even if a compromise becomes necessary, it will be effected.

Vermont famously has no Atlantic port. But neither is Vermont accessible to modern overland transportation--i.e., trucking or rail. By the early eighties, the widespread use of the intermodal model of transporting goods internationally and interstate made it difficult to justify manufacturing in Vermont. But, no bother---the gentry had long before firmly planted the idea that Vermont's future lay in the charm of its billboard-free, winding roads.

A north-south highway on the west side of the state, plotted in the early sixties, has never progressed beyond a feeder from Albany to the strangely eclectic drop-off to Stratton and Bromley--- old-money-new-retail Manchester.

Even that was likely immensely unpopular among the gentry. Better to sell cheese, maple syrup and furniture to flatlanders along its dangerously narrow roads. In the end, though,some over-the-counter sales of designer and gourmet goods near Manchester's infamous "malfunction junction" is a small price to pay to be left alone on your "farm" in Weston.

A more stern challenge to the gentrification occurred in the the mid and late eighties. The relative disparity in prices between Vermont and the northeastern "flatlands" brought a veritable rush in real estate. Grey ponytails and rusty Volvos gave way to LL Bean chore coats and newer Saabs. Yet the gentry's carefully constructed "anti-development" regime suffered only minor injury. The need to preserve the sight of drafty old farmhouses still locked up whole farms from development. Jack still couldn't split off an acre from the field or woodlot for his son or daughter's homestead---a low-pitch roofed ranch or, worse, a modular was jarring on the daily Sunday drives in the Saab---but the building of condos on Stratton, Mt. Snow, Bromley, or Okemo never slowed for a minute. Again, a small compromise for peace on your "farm" in Marlboro.

Other barriers to development were put in place. The gentry "deregulated" electricity in way exactly opposite of what that term properly means. There can be no cooling funnels in-state and no natural gas supply from neighboring states. Energy prices in Vermont make the long, cold winters even more trying. Act 60 institutionalized redistributive economics and took control of education in one fell swoop.

None of these progressive moves disturbs the trust funds or New York incomes of the rural gentry in the least. To adapt a rough paraphrase of a Jonah Goldberg observation, Vermont is a sort of progressive theme park, with the gentry as the politically appointed managers and self-described "smart development" crowd as park rangers. Both in but neither of.

There may yet be some overwrought argument between the gentry and the "smart developers" in a courtroom somewhere in Vermont. Gentry lawyers may have firm addresses in a diffrent sector of Boston or New York, and may be a good deal older and better litigators, but the "battle" is more likely theatrics. The park managers will simply approve a plan of the upstart rangers, and let the rangers tout their victory.

I hope that lifting the veil a bit, as Mr. Harris has done, ---along with my clumsy pokes---will spark some of the Vermonters still there into a fight. Vermonters should realize that their self-appointed "benefactors" are no smarter and certainly less principled than they. "Live and let live" doesn't work with the self-absorbed and shameless. They'll live their life---and yours, too.


Having grown up in Maine and now residing in the Pacific Northwest I have seen this phenomena directly. In addition to what Harris has observed I would add that there are essential to theoretical dimension to the situation and especially how it relates to public policy. The first is the economic, more precisely the economics of either smart growth or rural gentrification. Even going by much of the data provided by proponents of such it is evident that it never quite adds up the way advocates would like. High density developments is never efficient enough to justify its existence, nor are those quaint farmettes, ever productive enough to justify their existence, let alone be justified as an economically viable option for the rural poor. Also, it is wise to note that there is never much in the way of real analysis relative to these patterns of development compare to the great Satan of suburbia. However, despite this proponents all too often cite "hard empirical evidence" as to why such policies as necessary. Also, along these lines it seems prima face naive to assume that one model of social and economic organization can adequately address the complex needs of a society or economy.

As with all ideologically motivated policies, the alleged justification is only secondary to the real motives behind the agenda. In this instance I can say from first hand experience that this way of thinking is rooted in a very class based rendition of society that views most people as either servants of their benevolent masters or mere eye sores to be done away with. When I was a kid in Maine I used to remember meeting the people described in this article. They would rant and rave about development ruining the "Maine way of life", all the while being corporate sellouts from Boston who would disparagingly describe the "townies" as stupid idiots for allowing WalMart to come to town. I must admit my young and impressionable mind bought into a great amount of such thinking. However, when I moved to the Northwest in my mid 20's I started to notice the subtle hypocrisies of this ideology. In the Northwest you will frequently see people who live on huge estates, drive SUV's and have made themselves rich off of the economic booms of the area proclaim, the need for my generation to live in apartments with out cars and many possessions. In a place like Western Washington the rhetoric has reached a fever pitch with ever increasing fantasies of 50 unit per acre Transit Orientated Developments and pervasive Smart Growth. However the elite and those who can afford to still prefer their estates and SUVs. Ultimately, what such things get down to is that they desire a well maintained playground for themselves and convenient holding pens for the masses that support their lifestyle. These individuals care neither for what is economical, sustainable, or socially equitable. As far as I can tell the "townies" of these communities whether they are of the East or West, are relegated to the status of cattle.