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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lament of the Landowner

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Andrew Schmookler reflects from his home in the Virginia mountains on the dilemma of the rural homeowner. How do we resolve our desire for a healthy and active real estate market with a desire to keep the land around us pristine and free from overdevelopment?


NUNLEY: Writer Andy Schmookler recently pulled up stakes from Washington, DC and headed for the hills. In his head, he hopes others will soon follow . . . in his heart, he hopes they won't.

SCHMOOKLER: I find that I am of two minds when I think of my new house in the mountains. One mind thinks in the way of the marketplace - it wants the value of this place to go up. The other mind thinks in terms of the values that brought us out here in the first place - it wants all of this beauty to remain unspoiled. In a world where price is determined by supply and demand, and where more demand for real estate means not only higher prices but also more congestion, my two minds are inevitably in conflict. We moved out to the mountains to replenish the springs of our spirit. After a decade inside the Washington Beltway, we wanted to look out on a landscape shaped more by the hand of nature than by our own kind. Boy, did we find it - a little chalet house with lots of glass, sitting on a ridge, surrounded by garden and orchard, overlooking a valley and the next ridge, all covered with forest. Each day we drink in the glories of the Creation. When I think of the place as an investment, I want above all to be smart. I hope for a rebounding real estate market, where prices go up and "For Sale" signs disappear from the sides of the roads hereabouts. I want to know that if I want out I can get out quick, and with a profit. Real estate is a high-stakes game, and I want to win. But then I realize the conditions that will make this a good investment are the opposite of those that make the place so nourishing. I've seen it happen before, in places like California and Arizona - people stampeding into beautiful areas, driving up the prices but destroying the values that brought them out there in the first place. One's "net worth" goes up, while the quality of life goes down. This dilemma of the homeowner is a microcosm of a more general economic quandary we're in. We are fixated on the idea that economic growth is the key to human progress, but we are troubled that the more things "develop," the more they also seem to fall apart. Well, in my case, neither of my two minds has won the argument yet. Like most Americans, I'm attached to riches of both kinds. But the more I fall in love with this place, the more I think in terms of staying, and if I'm here to stay it wouldn't matter how fast I could get out or at what price. I'll let you know how my internal argument turns out. In the meanwhile, this is Andy Schmookler in the mountains of Virginia - but I'm not going to tell you just where.

NUNLEY: Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of Fool's Gold: The Fate of Values in a World of Goods. He comes to us from member station WMRA in - well, let's just say somewhere west of the Potomac.



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