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Lost best place

As city dwellers seek bucolic bliss, sprawl is spreading to the countryside. Problem, or opportunity?

March 1, 2007


Douglas Clement Editor, The Region

In 2005, when Las Vegas multimillionaire David Lipson applied for several trademarks on commercial use of the phrase "The Last Best Place," Montanans were outraged. The expression has become the state's unofficial motto over the past 20 years or so, seeming to capture Montana's pride about its unique natural beauty even better than "Big Sky Country." The idea that anyone—particularly an outsider—could possess it was infuriating. "We just don't like big shots coming from someplace else and claiming they own something they don't," Gov. Brian Schweitzer told the media.

But in the last best places of Ninth District states, it's not just mottos that "outsiders" are staking claims to. Hoping to get away from it all, increasing numbers of people are purchasing land far beyond city limits and building vacation getaways or full-time homes on farmland, lakeshores and woodlands. (Lipson himself owns a 37,000-acre luxury resort in Greenough, Mont.) So while the term "sprawl" is usually applied to urban areas, the latest frontier is the hinterlands.

"For the first time in more than a century more people are moving to rural areas than from rural areas," according to a December 2005 study of U.S. population movement and land use edited by geographer Daniel Brown of the University of Michigan and ecologist Andrew Hansen of Montana State University. "Fleeing the cities, many retirees, entrepreneurs and others are seeking the small-town lifestyles and natural amenities of rural landscapes."

The phenomenon has brought national media attention to the smallest of the district's communities. Wishek, N.D., for instance, was the focus of a recent New York Times article on "bargain vacation homes and hunting grounds" that "out-of-state hunters with out-of-state incomes" are snapping up.

But many locals aren't happy about outsiders buying local land at what they consider exorbitant prices. "It upsets me, to be honest with you. It really does," said Butch Ewertz, senior vice president of the Security State Bank of Hunter, N.D., "because you've got farmers out here that would like to expand—buy a quarter- or a half-section to increase their farming operations—and they can't afford to. It's price prohibitive."

Of course, it's not just out-of-staters who are buying and developing rural land. Minnesota's North Shore is a prime destination for retirees and others from the Twin Cities; locals call the new residents "612ers" after the Minneapolis area code. Development has proceeded rapidly elsewhere in the state's lake country, as well, transforming sleepy small towns into booming resort communities.

Many protest against this rural sprawl as a particularly ugly manifestation of its urban cousin. The expansion of city dwellers into previously unspoiled land, they say, is eating up thousands of acres of open space and destroying the natural beauty that attracted them to it. But new migrants to rural areas don't view it that way; they see inexpensive land and an opportunity for a better life. (At least until someone blocks their view of the lake.)

Economists tend to side with the new settlers. As long as prices reflect the full cost of land development, markets will properly allocate between new and old land uses. Policies to ensure accurate pricing will have more success in achieving the right amount of growth than will artificial restrictions on sprawl and overregulation through zoning.

This fedgazette feature examines rural sprawl in the Ninth District, the conflicts it's causing, the economics behind it, and policies and programs being used to address it.