Gated Communities Go West

New developments seek nature, then fence it in with New Ruralism

| December 7, 2006

Imagine a huge log cabin hugging a mountainside, with horses running past the picturesque red barn. Strategically placed ponderosa pines dot a perpetually green meadow. A stream meanders through. Now what if that picture included a private club, equestrian center, pool, golf course, and wireless internet? What if next door were 30 other faux 'western outposts' just like yours? And what if all of you were enclosed within one giant fence with a security gate? Whether this appeals to you or not, brace yourself, because this Disney-esque interpretation of rural living may soon be coming to a countryside near you.

Gated communities have long held a reputation as promised lands for well-heeled retirees: segregated, elitist, and pseudo-secure. But this new type of community, where residents possess multi-acred mini-ranches within the rigidly ruled and fenced-in fashion of association living, has put a new spin on the gated community, and on country living. As Florence Williams astutely observes in High Country News: 'The presence of a gate for humans in the middle of range country poses the obvious question: Why? Who lives 'inside' and who lives 'outside,' and why underline the demarcation in such an in-your-face way?'

Inside Hamilton, Montana's 'Stock Farm' development, for example, you will find club membership initiation fees of $125,000 and lots as expensive as $1.2 million (the cheapest ready-to-move-in building -- a two-bedroom cabin -- sells for about $800,000). Most residents are part-time, flying in on private jets for golf tournaments and long weekends. Outside, in the town of Hamilton, you will find a poverty rate of 16 percent and a general bitterness toward the Stock Farmers, stemming primarily from the newcomers' disinterest in getting to know their neighbors, as well as local resistance to change. 'The resentment I feel is part of a larger bag of resentments I haul around about the increasing privatization of the West,' one Hamilton resident told Williams. But it isn't just the West that is being fenced-in and privatized.

The idea of the gated rural community, reports Roberta Fennessy for Urban, was spawned in Florida by Peter S. Rummel, CEO of the state's largest real estate operating company. Rummel, not ironically, once worked for Disney as a creator of the notorious New Urbanist mecca, Celebration. Now, Rummel has taken planned development to a new level by selling expensive pre-fab farms in the swampy, isolated, mosquito-ridden panhandle of Florida. He's dubbed the concept -- touted as a reconnection with nature -- 'New Ruralism.'

Unlike its counterpart, New Urbanism (which aims to mimic the compactness, efficiency, and diversity of an old-time city through transit alternatives, mixed-use areas, and mixed-income housing), New Ruralism is heavily dependent on car use and is generally reserved for the rich. Further, Fennessy writes, the influx of people to remote areas poses serious challenges to existing infrastructure. Roads, water, sewage, and even basic amenities like gas stations might not exist and many fear a new type of unwieldy rural growth. Environmentalists are up in arms, too. Because these communities are frequently located next to parks and wildlife areas and are extensively fenced, they can block public access to trailheads, hinder the creation of future trails, and seal-off wildlife corridors, Fennessy reports. The impact on biodiversity and water quality remains to be seen.

The whole idea of planned communities is to avoid the negative consequences of growth and development. Hope for New Ruralism, then, may lie with cooperation between public and private, and new and old, in order to preserve what draws people to the country in the first place: quiet, wild, open spaces.