The new coastal colonialists

Maybe I’m the only one who finds the irony in the naming of a new upscale residential development near Bandon, Oregon, “The Colony.” Came across an ad for the development in this morning’s local paper. If you’re an Oregonian or a golfer, you’ve probably heard of the world-renown golf courses in the vicinity of Bandon. That’s the impetus behind a surge in construction of expensive homes in the area in recent years.

The developers describe The Colony as “Oregon’s premier residential coastal community.” Far from a community, what it looks like to me from the Web site is just another batch of condominiums, in this case perched along one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline anywhere. We’re talking 18 residences with an asking price of at least $1 million and upwards to $2.5 million or more. If most of these get sold as second homes, and I’m sure they will be, this won’t exactly be a bustling “community” since most of the homes will be vacant much of the year.

Over the last decade or more, we’ve seen Oregon’s coastal property fill in with expensive vacation homes. I admit I have thought often over the years about how nice it would be to own a second home at the coast. I love spending time there. But my views changed last fall when I was driving along the Florida Panhandle coastal highway. It was there I learned about the St. Joe Company, Florida’s largest private landowner; it boasts that it owns 800,000 acres including “five miles of beach, hundreds of miles of waterfront and hundreds of thousands of acres within ten miles of the Florida coast.”

Ten years ago the company began transforming itself from a tree grower and paper producer into a real estate developer as a way of profiting more from its land holdings. It has since been on a roll in developing upscale residential subdivisions and resorts, perhaps single handedly dispensing with the Panhandle’s reputation as “The Forgotten Coast.”

As I skirted by many of St. Joe’s manufactured neighborhoods, I decided to stop at a realtor’s office. The nice lady I spoke with was understandably energetic about all the real estate activity, driven in large part, she said, by wealthy folks in cities such as Atlanta and Birmingham buying up vacation properties built by St. Joe and other developers. But it was her off-handed remark about how so many of the “locals” were moving because they could no longer afford to live in the area or didn’t like what it was becoming that caught my attention. You won’t hear St. Joe talking about the impact of rising property values on the less affluent or the virtual overnight disruption to community among those who have long lived in those parts.

And therein lies, for me, the great irony of a beachfront development being dubbed The Colony. At least along the Panhandle, it very much feels like a land that’s being colonized. In this case by a large corporation. The nature of a colonizer is to dominate an economy or culture and extract wealth at the expense of or without regard to the existing inhabitants. The losers in the development game of the rich and richer are those who are priced out of their communities or watch as a way of life is pulled out from under them in the name of economic growth.

The Oregon coastline is increasingly the playground of the affluent. What I wonder is whether the locals who have lived in the region through thick and thin (mostly thin) are benefiting from any largesse of their johnny-come-lately neighbors. Or are they simply moving aside and giving up in the face of those who want a Colony they can call their own? Let me know what you think.

August 1st, 2007

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