Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate
25 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108-2892; www.beacon.org.
2013. 208 pages. $25.95 hardcover.
From the Kennedys to the Kochs, the rich and powerful have been fighting to keep a massive wind farm from being built off the coast of Cape Cod. This is a perfect case for Lisa Prevost’s Snob Zones, a book that examines land use conflicts in the change-resistant small towns and suburbs of New England. But the author doesn’t even mention Cape Wind. That’s because she has plenty of other material, from Connecticut to Maine. Her focus is on issues that, though smaller in scale, can stir up controversy that feels just as heated as the battle waged over Nantucket Sound.
Most of New England may be deep blue politically, but Prevost found plenty of examples that are the equivalent of a Tea Party bumper sticker on the back of a Toyota Prius. Referring to a waterfront community in southwestern Rhode Island, the author writes about wealthy residents’ fight to keep the public from enjoying an access path to the shore. In an exclusive rural enclave in Connecticut, Prevost details how even a small retail development within the town’s only commercial zone became an anathema. Affordable housing? In Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine, it is less than warmly embraced.
The author uses these examples to reveal how communities form what she calls “snob zones” that act as barriers to change—especially when that change involves people from outside the community and those with limited influence and resources.
“Snob zoning caters to the impulse to wall ourselves off in ‘safe’ spaces,” writes Prevost, a real estate reporter from Connecticut. “And as income inequality has widened across the United States, the impacts of snob zoning have become stark, such that in many states, town lines all but double as class lines.”
Prevost sets her sights mostly on cases in which the wealthy wield overwhelming financial and legal firepower to fight change that they find objectionable. Most of the book, though, is about affordable housing—an issue that generates intense interest at normally mundane meetings of planning and zoning boards. The author demonstrates that a project of any size—including even a handful of affordable units—will draw claims from opponents that their community is under grave threat.
However, some of the situations described in Snob Zones seem comparatively benign. One case involves Watch Hill, a beautiful seaside section of Westerly, Rhode Island, that is home to the rebuilt Ocean House hotel. Prevost laments how the old hotel, with all its charm and structural issues, was frequented by local residents, while the new version is an exclusive resort that is out of the price range of many in the community. But the old hotel was struggling, and the new investment in town was a significant contributor to the tax base. And improvements to the Ocean House did not change the fact that Watch Hill can still be accessed and enjoyed by the public—including use of a village center that allows anyone to park and take in the sights.
I, myself, have experienced much more blatant—and effective—attempts by the well-off to wall themselves off from the rest of society. For example, at a gated community in a coastal southeastern North Carolina city, access is tightly controlled at a central checkpoint to residents and their guests, and the rules are so strict that one resident got into trouble with security for picking up her newspaper from her lawn while she was wearing a bathrobe. To me, that is a clear case of snob zoning—affecting people not only on the outside, but even within (though it’s hard to find empathy for people who, knowing the rules, bought in the community anyway).
Overall, the title Snob Zones—certain to rankle more than a few people in the towns mentioned in this book—belies the author’s even-toned, journalistic approach. Snob Zones reads like a collection of in-depth newspaper articles in which, though the setting changes, the theme—resistance to change—remains the same. The book does a thorough job explaining each case and historical context. But what motivates people to fight proposals for new development, or to allow the public access to a public resource near them? What differentiates New England—the focus of the book—from other parts of the country? Prevost does not begin to explore the factors motivating people until near the end of the book. Writing about a New Hampshire town’s struggle to stop a multifamily housing development, the author points to a belief within New England dating to colonial times that “a community is only responsible for ‘its own,’ ” and therefore does not need to accommodate new growth allowing those from outside the community to move in. I suppose there is something to this, but, as she points out, it is a “porous concept” given people’s mobility today.
To me, the simpler explanation goes to the fact that New England states have put in place progressive laws aimed at encouraging the development of affordable housing outside urban areas. Massachusetts and Rhode Island in particular have laws that provide developers a powerful tool, enabling them to override local zoning regulations if they designate at least 25 percent of the proposed housing as affordable. The broad goals of increasing affordable housing and expanding choice of housing types are laudable. And in fact, thousands of affordable housing units have been produced mostly because of these laws. But when a specific proposal comes forward within a mostly developed community, even those who support affordable housing, if they live near the property, can find themselves at the hearing voicing their opposition to it.
Prevost points to a long-term issue that New England in particular must confront: the changing housing needs of the aging baby boom generation and the lack of housing options enabling young families to move into a community and contribute to the local economy. Demographic shifts, the desire for walkable neighborhoods, and concerns over rising energy prices and climate change, the author writes, might eventually lead to more acceptance of higher-density residential development, with apartments, condominiums, and smaller homes. She acknowledges, however, that this will not come easily: “If history is any guide, most towns will still have to be prodded out of their parochialism by laws and lawsuits,” she writes.