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Lost Charm 

by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & , for one, will miss our North Idaho Gothic scene out there on the Rathdrum Prairie and environs: serious gun-toters, Trilateralists, JFK conspiracy buffs, the chronically unemployed, rumors of strange men in white robes walking across state highways doing God knows what -- it was an American original. The very nasty and heavy-handed Aryan Nations, just to the east, were only a footnote to the generally prevailing weirdness of it all. The bonfires and the chanting went far into the night. Soon, though, all this local color will soon be consigned into the proverbial dustbin. Our very own American Gothic is being done in not by the cops, nor even the preachers, but by urban sprawl.





North Idaho, from the prairie all the way up past Priest River and over to the Washington state line, was a region of strange and self contradictory mores, beliefs, and actions. On the one hand, the region was a vacation destination of unparalleled beauty; on the other, it was the only place in America where, while driving along a state highway, you might see a double-wide billboard urging America to get out of the United Nations and proclaiming that "Jesus Saves" -- a billboard that camouflaged a commercially profitable marijuana field owned by an ex-California hippie who voted Republican because he hated welfare cheats.





The Rathdrum American Gothic lifestyle was always dependent on isolation, which was in turn dependent on an agricultural economy. And while agricultural land is being taken out of production all across the country, the conversion on the prairie was no doubt hastened by the ban on grass burning. Once grass growing lost its profitability, the land was quickly sold to housing developers. Facilitated by an antiquated governing system, supported by an outdated zoning code (actually, the more enlightened developers were restricted by it), mired in a lack of imagination, propelled by expediency and more than a dash of greed -- let the sprawl begin.





What's so disturbing is that here in our little corner of the country, the pattern of development could have taken on a different look. The opportunity was there. Needed was mixed-use and diverse housing stock constructed around planned urban centers supported by parks and other amenities. Instead the house construction binge has produced only row upon row of single-family, "spec," tract-housing projects that call to mind the worst of the schlock that went up across the land after World War II.





Amazing! All the mistakes which were made in suburban America during the '50s have and are being repeated on the Rathdrum Prairie north of Post Falls in Kootenai County.





These housing developments put us in mind of Malvina Reynolds' famous 1962 song, "Little Boxes," popularized by Pete Seeger. Reynolds lived in Berkeley and most thought that her target was the newly constructed Daly City, just across the Bay. Others thought she had in mind the Levittowns. In any case, she unwittingly anticipated by half a century, 21st-century Post Falls and its county environs:





Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,


Little boxes, little boxes,


Little boxes, all the same.


There's a green one and a pink one


And a blue one and a yellow one


And they're all made out of ticky-tacky


And they all look just the same.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & C & lt;/span & ounty governments across the country have long been the major culprits. For more than a half century, the Post Falls pattern has been the model, especially in the South and West, where we find most of the undervalued agricultural land -- land that is being converted from rural to suburban. While cities typically have to fight hard to annex, county commissioners -- with a simple vote followed by the stroke of the pen -- can and do cause hundreds and even thousands of acres to be developed with antiquated, single-use zoning. So out go the farms and in come the tract houses -- miles upon miles of automobile-dependent suburban sprawl.





Growth management across the country emerged in reaction to just this pattern of growth, and, yes, Idaho does have such an act (which it euphemistically associates with so-called "smart growth"). You only have to read the opening paragraph to get the gist: Idaho's lawmakers began not with reference to the importance of planning but by reiterating the importance of property rights protection. And then comes the bone over the backyard fence: To the extent that there is planning, it should concentrate on "other necessary types of housing such as low-income housing and mobile home parks." Wow, is that far-reaching or what?





And for the real side-splitter, how about the stipulation that planning should "avoid undue concentrations of population and overcrowding land"? Overcrowding? In Idaho? Where the population density is all of 16 people per square mile?





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o the county rezones the land, which then is sold, which then acquires all those promised property rights, which, when exercised, produces a predictable result: sprawl.





I preferred the conspiracy-mongering Trilateralists. Unless you believed all the rumors, they didn't let their sociopathic tendencies get out of control all that often. Actually, some of those ex-hippies were downright colorful. Their schemes for laying claims to welfare dollars while voting Republican were ingenious. More important, none of them trod heavy on the land.
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