Conservative: “adjective; holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.”
So says my dictionary. Which is why I never cease to be amazed by how fundamentally unconservative members of the putative conservative political party, that is to say Republican, can be.
At least when it comes to behaviors and attitudes about land. “Cautious about change” says the definition. In practice, it’s anything but. What’s the thing that can change a conservative instantly into an activist? What’s the thing that can cause a person to instantly discard his, or her, ideology in sacrifice to practicality?
Money, of course. The root of all evil. That which makes conservatives, not. That which gives lie to the Grand Old Party’s grandness.
Little Brown County, Ind. The county that, by default, has become the trustee of Indiana’s aesthetic legacy. An interactive museum of our state’s lost beauty, the place where conservatives can point to the past as justification for conservatism’s caution about the future.
“See how it used to look? See why I value the traditional over the speculative? See what I wanted to preserve?”
Storied little town
Or so the schematic says it should be, at least in theory. But not in practice, for over in the little hamlet of Story, conservative activists are not only incautious about change, they’ve become the agents of it.
Story’s wealth, like that of Brown County itself, is denominated in aesthetics. That is, the value of the town lies principally in how it looks. The pleasure that its “touch and feel” gives is what makes people value it; a value called “natural capital.”
I’m not a big fan of property zoning, for reasons too lengthy to go into here. But the fact is that Brown County implemented property zoning as the mechanism, the bank so to speak, for holding that natural capital in a public trust. A way to make sure that the natural public capital of the area couldn’t be liquidated for the benefit of private interests.
Comes to Story a developer, a limited liability company (LLC) that wants to liquidate some of that natural public capital and disburse it to the company’s single shareholder, a man named Dan Bright.
"Leverage" is a term used by entrepreneurs, financiers and developers to describe using an asset one doesn’t own, to increase the value of another that you do. “Forcing” is a term that climate scientists use to describe a similar process, in which small changes in one condition cause large changes in another.
“Located near Nashville, IN, the Brown County State Park and Hoosier National Forest!!”, says the development’s Web site, noting the leverage that those public assets, that natural capital, are having on the development’s land values. Once built, the development itself will become a forcing factor, like a snowball going downhill, increasing the speed with which other development, other liquidations, occur.
But there was a fly in the developer’s ointment. The land which his LLC owned was zoned for preservation, for conservation. The law, often an ass, said the natural public capital there couldn’t be liquidated for leveraged, forced, private gain.
And it was so zoned, it was so conserved, well before the company bought it. In other words, the developers knew what they were getting into.
But they also knew that forgiveness is much easier to get than permission. As I’ve said before, local government is a machine. It’s a machine designed and built to manipulate land values, to give advantage to some and take it from others. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
The zoning had to go
The zoning that had protected the land’s natural capital, that had allowed it to accrue interest, was now an impediment to its liquidation. So it had to change. Who could change it? Brown County’s three commissioners, all Republicans.
All putatively conservative, meaning cautious about change.
The commissioners are elected public officials. Legally and morally they are bound to represent in what they believe to be the best interests of the public, that is to say those people that, by virtue of their residency, are entitled to a vote. Constituents.
The public, meaning the existing area residents, meaning the commissioner’s constituents, meaning every property owner within two miles, save one, were unequivocal in their opposition to the developer’s rezone. They argued that no net public benefit would accrue from a rezone and that considerable public harm would, in fact, be done. They argued a conservative position, inherently cautious about change.
The growth presumption
“We’re probably not going to get a Toyota plant like they did in Greensburg, so it’s going to take a lot of little things,” said Commissioner Blake Wolpert, oblivious to the fact that Brown County’s value, its wealth, was in its natural, not built, capital.
And the fact that it was Honda, not Toyota, that went to Greensburg.
And, so, Commissioners Wolpert and Stephanie Yager voted for, with Commissioner James Austin voting against.
Explaining, obliquely, how the land-value machine’s levers get pulled, The Brown County Democrat noted that Austin, though also a Republican, was the only commissioner who had not accepted campaign money from the one small faction supportive of the development.
Fortunately, there’s a solution.
“WE DECLARE, … that all free governments are, and of right ought to be, founded on [the public’s] authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and well-being.” Article 1, Section 1, Indiana Constitution.
“All State officers shall, for crime, incapacity, or negligence, be liable to be removed from office.” Article 6, Section 7, Indiana Constitution.
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.