Stephanie Riegel at the Baton Rouge Business Report has a story out about West Feliciana Parish, where I live, and the struggle this place has to continue being a good place to live. Everybody loves that this is a rural parish — only about 10,000 people live here (not counting Angola inmates, that is) — and full of natural beauty. But we can’t keep going like we are. Young families can’t afford to live here, and the tax base is rapidly declining. From the story:
It’s a problem and it’s getting worse, not in the least because one of the major sources of revenue in West Feliciana, Entergy’s River Bend nuclear power plant, is depreciating at a rate of roughly 4% a year. As result, the ad valorem taxes the plant contributes to parish coffers keep declining. Local government has responded by jacking up property and sales taxes. But how much can you tax a small population, especially when one-third of that population comprises the non-income-producing inmates of Angola State Penitentiary?
The parish recognizes it needs to grow, if only to find new sources of revenue. Just about everyone agrees on that. The problem is, no one can agree on how best to accomplish that growth without changing the precious character of the parish. Four years ago, the parish took an important first step, developing a comprehensive plan for land use that was intended to help guide development and growth in an orderly, agreed-upon manner.
But when it came down to implementing the strategy—changing the zoning code to reflect the broad outline of the plan—the community quickly splintered. Smart growth sounds good on paper, after all. But the reality of it is far less palatable when you realize it means your farmland will be rezoned as commercial property—with its building restrictions and higher assessment rate—or that your roadside billboard has to be replaced with a discreet monument sign, or that your five acres of God’s country are going to back up to a high-density subdivision of mixed-income housing.
The result is that four years later, the plan is gathering dust and development is staying away. Developers and businesses don’t want to mess with a parish that doesn’t want them, much less have any clearly defined regulations on how, what and where they can build. Parish residents, meanwhile, remain divided over whether they even want that development. It’s a conundrum many rural communities around the country are confronting. That doesn’t make it any less of a problem for West Feliciana.
“In order for things to stay the same, they have to change,” says nationally acclaimed writer Rod Dreher, who recently returned to his native West Feliciana parish after two decades. “That’s the dilemma of West Feliciana. If we want to hold on to what we love about this place, we have to change.”
I stole that sentiment from The Leopard, of course. There’s a lot of classic NIMBY-ism here, but also this twist:
The parish’s history is also reflected in the legacy of its land ownership. A relatively small number of families and individuals—fewer than 15 by some estimates—still own the vast majority of the 273,000 acres in West Feliciana Parish. Not only does this concentrate a lot of power in the hands of a relatively small group, but it has several implications for how land is developed—or not. In some families, multiple generations of perhaps 100 or more heirs own shares in property they neither want to sell nor subdivide. They also oppose rezoning their land from rural to commercial or light industrial, which would increase their property tax assessment and impose restrictions on whether they can grow crops, tend livestock and erect multiple dwellings.
Weirdly enough, as my father recounted to the reporter, when he was a kid, there was a far more diverse retail economy in town than there is today — this, even though this parish is much wealthier today:
Though West Feliciana has always been a small, rural parish, the area used to be able to sustain itself. When Ray Dreher was growing up in St. Francisville in the 1940s, the town had 53 retail establishments, by his count, including three hardware stores, a movie theater, and shops that sold apparel and furniture.
“You could actually buy clothes and shoes—whatever you needed,” says Dreher, who is Rod Dreher’s father. “We used to have everything. Now all you can buy are gifts and antiques.”
That’s not strictly true — there’s a hardware store, and a couple of grocery stores, etc. — but his general point is valid.
The parish really needs to grow, but the people who are here can’t agree on how it should grow. So it doesn’t grow. Because there’s so little land on the market, the property my dad bought for $40 an acre in the 1950s is now worth $14,000 an acre. That’s good for me and my kids, and my sister’s kids, if we ever want to build housing here, but what about the large number of people who don’t have family land? Their children can’t afford to come back here — to the very place where they were born and raised — to live. Besides, where would they work?
Nobody wants “growth” if it means smelly industries and strip-mall sprawl. But what if the alternative is poverty and depopulation, except for the few rich people and landowners, and the very poor, who depend on welfare to get by? Everybody is rightly proud of our strong public school system here, but that can’t go on without a stable tax base.
Something’s got to give. Read the whole thing. If you can figure this out, let us know what to do, will you?