Friday, May. 31, 2024

As Real Estate Prices Rise, Riding Opportunities Dwindle

We all know the famous real estate question, "What three qualities determine the value of a piece of real estate?" And the answer: "Location, loca- tion, location." Based on that formula, I'd assumed that Vermont, where there's "nine months of winter and three months of damn poor sledding," was enough off the beaten track to stay inexpensive. But in just the last five years, I've watched Vermont real estate prices rocket through the proverbial roof. And the same thing has happened— often far more dramatically—all around the country.
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We all know the famous real estate question, “What three qualities determine the value of a piece of real estate?” And the answer: “Location, loca- tion, location.” Based on that formula, I’d assumed that Vermont, where there’s “nine months of winter and three months of damn poor sledding,” was enough off the beaten track to stay inexpensive. But in just the last five years, I’ve watched Vermont real estate prices rocket through the proverbial roof. And the same thing has happened— often far more dramatically—all around the country. It’s not that there are no affordable places left to ride in the United States. It’s that where there’s inexpensive land, it’s too dry, too cold, or too remote from sources of employment for most people to want to live there. Land, and specifically the price of land per acre, is permeating every aspect of the relationship modern Americans have with horses, perhaps more than any other single factor. The scenario we all love goes something like this: You wake up on a glorious spring morning, arise from bed, and walk down the path to the barn to feed your horses. All around you, stretching in every direction, are rolling green meadows. Birds sing in the trees, foals frolic beside their dams, your horses nicker when they hear the splash of oats into the pail. But that scenario is a dwindling reality. The reality is more apt to be something like this: You wake up on a glorious spring morning, but you can’t hear the birds singing in the trees because of the hum of traffic. You can’t hear your horses nicker for breakfast, because they’re miles away, being cared for by someone else. That someone is the barn owner or lessor, who clings onto a little oasis of land in the middle of suburban sprawl. Later that day, when you go to ride after work, you either ride around and around in an arena, or, if you’re lucky, you can wait for an opening in the stream of traffic to cross a road to ride around the edge of a cornfield that isn’t yet festooned with for sale signs. It’s not a horror movie. It’s a reality show for too many riders. U.S. population projections indicate that it’s only going to get worse, and that by the mid-21st century—in 45 years-here will be 400 million Ameri-cans, a dramatic in-crease from 150 million in the mid-20th century and 100 million more than today’s population. So rampant population growth is, fundamentally, at the root of the rider’s dilemma, but where “the rubber meets the road” is the price of the land riders choose to live on. Dayton Duncan’s 1992 book Miles From Now-here is the story, basically, of the sparsely populated American frontier, which still exists today. Duncan states that “132 counties in 15 western states—13 percent of the nation’s contiguous landmass—still have fewer than two people per square mile-he definition of ‘frontier.’ ” So there’s lots of inexpensive land left to ride horses on in the United States, but people who ride horses don’t like to live there! Where horse owners do live, increasingly, is in the suburbs. Suburbia is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it’s no coincidence that it’s closely linked to the post-World War II proliferation of the automobile and the extensive improvements to roads and highways that enable people to live in one place and to work in another. In the ’50s and even through the ’60s, it was quite normal to see orange sections ona map, denoting towns or cities, with green sections, denoting open countryside, separating the orange blots. Now the green is often filled in with orange, as the suburbs sprawl out in every direction from the urban areas, where the jobs are. So, as land becomes more expensive, lot sizes grow smaller. As more people move into an area, they demand more services, more roads, and more schools. Towns pass bond issues to pay for the schools and services, so taxes go up. The few farmers, trying to hang onto the green areas on the map, are forced to sell to developers. The price per acre goes up, open land disappears, and horse owners find themselves in the middle of a classic squeeze play. This situation extends its tentacles into every area of horse owners’ lives. Since they can’t afford the land, fewer people keep their horses at home. This means that fewer kids grow up with their backyard pony, whom they take care of before and after school, so the level of true horsemanship declines. Riders have fewer chances to ride out across miles of open land. Children don’t gallop their ponies bareback with a halter and lead rope. Look around you. Where did you ride 10 years ago? Where will you ride in 10 or 20 years? Do a bit of real estate price research. What does it cost to buy a farm near where you live that’s big enough to host a horse trial? Who can afford to buy such a place, and what would they have to charge as an entry fee to even begin to amortize such a purchase? If you don’t think about such questions, it’s time you begin to face reality. If you’re under 30, or you have children or grand-children under 30, where will you expect to ride in 2050? That’s why it’s so important for horsepeople to collectively act right now. We need to use resources like the Equestrian Land Con-servation Resource, and we need to join and support local organizations that encourage land preservation. I’ve personally supported the Green Mountain Horse Association, the Walthour-Moss Foundation, and the Carolina Horse Park simply because they are where I ride. Support your local land-conservation efforts, do it soon, and encourage your friends to get involved. The threat is real, the time is now, and no one is going to come along to save us if we’re unwilling to save ourselves.

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