Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Preserving real estate, not nature

Maine's in the middle of a midwinter thaw, and yesterday, after a day of rain, I went with Jess and two other friends for a walk through the fog in a wildlife preserve in Cape Elizabeth, the fancy oceanside suburb just south of Portland. I had a great time: it was just what I needed after a frustrating day in front of the computer, we saw a big barred owl, and we got to play with a really fun dog.

That said, in the next two posts I write, I'm going to be really critical of land trusts that preserve property in upper-class enclaves like Cape Elizabeth. As nice as the place is, I can be fairly certain that its main purpose is in preserving neighbors' real estate values, not nature.

Much like Portland's other wealthy suburban neighbor, Falmouth, the wealthy residents of Cape Elizabeth spend lots of their money on their conservation land trust. The land trust is a nonprofit organization which buys up forests and farm fields, the last vestiges of the town's rural roots. Residents can donate easements or outright gifts of land to the trust, which ensures that the scenic landscape will be preserved in perpetuity and returns, in exchange, substantial tax benefits to the donors.

Ostensibly, the trusts exist to preserve ecological functions, wildlife habitat, and, in some cases, working farmland, a historical connection to a rural heritage in a suburban era. And to give fair credit, many land trusts do manage to accomplish these things. In close-in suburbs like Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, though, the ecological wastelands of suburban backyards crowd up against the fringes of the conservation land, and the preserves are usually too small and too disjointed to provide significant wildlife habitat. Here's a satellite view of one Cape Elizabeth "preserve":

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Above: Cul-de-sacs and Cape Elizabeth Land Trust's Stonegate preserve.

To speak frankly, the real function of many of these preserves is to conserve scenic picture-window views of woods and fields, and to preserve residents' illusions that their town is still a wild, rural community. These places assure well-paid white-collar professionals that the place where they live (if you can call sleeping and lawnmowing "living") is still tied to the land, even if its residents are chained to desks downtown.

There are several big problems with this kind of "conservation". First and foremost: it's elitist. Conserving lots of land in Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth is effectively a form of exclusionary zoning that prevents other people from building their own houses there. This raises existing residents' property values even more and is a big reason why Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth are essentially unaffordable to anyone who hasn't spent at least eight years in a university.

There are also tremendous environmental costs hidden in those pastoral meadows: because the close-in suburbs are unaffordable, the hoi polloi must move further out to places like Scarborough or Windham (which were, until recently, actual rural communities) in search of affordable housing, with the net result being more pollution everywhere. By any measure, putting ten houses on two acres of a Falmouth "preserve" is better than ten houses on a thirty-acre ex-pasture in Gray.

Finally, I'm concerned the illusion of wilderness that these "preserves" maintain in a suburban community doesn't just shield their neighbors from consorting with the working classes: I suspect that they also shield suburbanites from thinking seriously about the environmental consequences of their own hyperactive consumption. Seeing a forest or a pastoral meadow out the window seems like a good way to buy falsely rosy assurances about the world's condition. Cloistered in the woods at the end of a long driveway, you can avoid environmental responsibility almost as effectively as you can avoid your neighbors.

1 comment:

C Neal said...

A note from the editor:

For various obscure reasons, the comments on this post have been entirely posted on Portland Psst!, a local food gossip blog. See