So, Ya Wanna Make Some Money in Farmington

Thoughts on Prosperity, Profit-taking and Piracy


Brad Anderson

So, ya wanna make some money--well, no bad thing. We all gotta live. We all gotta pay our bills, send the kids to the dentist, have some fun on the weekend. For many of us, the way we make money works in harmony with others in our community. We are shopkeepers, restaurateurs, auto repair mechanics, farmers, computer technicians. Through the work that we do, we help each other because the computer tech can't grow a decent tomato, and the farmer needs a little help with a nasty computer virus. We all contribute to each other's quality of life and prosperity.

But what if the work that we did was actually destructive to the lifestyles or personal prosperity of the majority of others in our community? What if in the process of making a profit, we financially hurt lifetime residents, elderly folks on fixed incomes or working stiffs that are only making a living wage? What if our work actually sucked the life and richness out of our community by sticking us with new development that we can't live with, by increasing our taxes, or by destroying natural resources and our distinctive scenic qualities? It can happen, and does--too often.

Here is how: It begins with those who enter our community and see (in the rich community life and the small town charm) fertile ground for exploitation. Most of the time, they are people who live somewhere else and have no long-term ties to what our town may become. Sometimes they move here and masquerade as "one of us". Then, they identify in our community what is known in the topsy-turvy world of exploitation as an "undervalued asset". When such assets can be acquired from their owners at a price lower than the real value of the asset, then profit may be extracted from it in a very short time.

Some examples: land that can be subdivided yet again, forestland that can be clearcut, land that most reasonable people would not build on, but which could (with any good lawyer that can efficiently intimidate a planning board) support a residential subdivision. With these assets, the land is acquired, its mature trees removed, its topography leveled, its gravel and minerals sold out of town, its wetlands filled, and its boundaries subdivided to the smallest possible lots. Barns may be destroyed, architectural uniqueness made bland, historic structures leveled, strip malls installed. This is called "maximizing profit".

But this is piracy--not "making a living". Not making a living like the shopowner that works day in and day out to keep a nice store, dress the windows, know the customers. Not like the farmer who stewards the same land that twelve generations have worked. Not like the people who work in our community to make it a town we want to live in.

It is as if these profit-taking pirates are gaining their wealth directly from our pockets; from the quality and value that is encapsulated in the very identity of our town. But that's not all. We must recognize that when they destroy our towns' assets, it is we who will pay. We will pay to buy gravel from somewhere else because ours is gone. Pay to clean up the water that they pollute with runoff and toxins. Pay when we drive by a parking lot where there was once a hayfield or an historic building. Pay to educate all the kids from somewhere else that move into their ticky-tacky new houses. Pay when we lose the opportunity to do something better for the people that live here.

We pay. Our taxes climb. Studies show that towns with more development on average have higher taxes. We pay.

Take a town like Farmington. Our property values used to be low enough that the kids that grew up here could afford to live here. That is changing fast. The bad economy is making it worse. Interest rates are at an unprecedented low (since Eisenhower anyway). It is easy to get investment capital. And "undervalued assets" abound for those in the exploitation business. In 2002, the tax rate increased 38% in a single year. The cost of new infrastructure required by unplanned growth is the culprit--schools, million dollar traffic lights, expanded town offices, new homes.

Our town has a chance to put a temporary kibosh on the plundering of Farmington. The planning board is considering a one-year growth ordinance that stops certain types of speculative residential development so that we have time to create better ordinances to protect our community quality. On July 15, the planning board holds a public hearing to consider whether to let the voters evaluate this ordinance at a special town meeting. The pirates will be on hand. Will those of us who want to retain community prosperity for the working stiffs be there to repel boarders?