Real estate prices in rural Orleans County go through the roof

Why it’s happening, and when and where else it’s happened before

November 12, 2019 – by Guy Page – Don’t look now, but homes are selling for record prices in Orleans County. 

That’s right – In the Land that the EB-5 Scandal Forgot, the residential real estate market has doubled in the last nine years. Shrugging off the fading promise of economic windfall, homebuyers are bidding up the values of properties in Northeast Kingdom county, historically one of Vermont’s weakest for home property values.

That’s the lead story in the October 30 Chronicle, run under the headline, “County Real Estate in Big Demand.” And is it ever. In January-October 2010, total sales of single-family homes totaled $63 million. Sales from January through October 2019 totaled $122 million, according to the Orleans County Real Estate Board. It’s a seller’s market with actual inventory shortages in some areas.

What’s going on?

The big-picture explanation is that the Northeast Kingdom is finally catching up with the rest of Vermont. It’s been a long time coming. As early as the 1890’s, Vermont land and home prices took off when aggressive marketing by state officials found thousands of city dwellers looking for a healthy, peaceful, still-green relief from crowded, dirty, urban living, NVU-Lyndon history professor Paul Searls writes in his 2019 book, “Repeopling Vermont.” For obvious geographical reasons, it occurred mostly in southern Vermont, but since then has moved northward. In recent years, once-cheap property in northwestern Vermont – Franklin County – has become so pricey that county development officials are concerned about lack of affordable housing. Now, finally, it seems to be northeastern Vermont’s turn.

But – why now? First, what’s not the cause is a statewide boom in new home construction – because that’s just not happening. While neighbor New Hampshire saw new building construction (of all kinds) rise 8% from September 2018 to 2019, and 39 other states added construction jobs, Vermont’s total construction fell 6%, one of the steepest in the country, for a net loss of 900 jobs, according to an October, 2019 analysis of Bureau of Labor statistics.

Orleans County realtors interviewed by the Chronicle, a weekly newspaper published in Barton, cite two main reasons for the spike in home sale interest and sale prices:

  1. Low interest rates. Young home buyers are taking advantage of low rates. With rents as high as they are, and borrowing as cheap as it is, some young people are opting to buy.
  2. Strong interest from out-of-staters: “All manner of people, including Floridians, [are] buying all kinds of Northeast Kingdom properties, including seven-figures ones,” the Chronicle reports. It quotes Irasburg Realtor Cindy Sanville of Sanville Realty: “I think that with national disasters and global warming people are wanting to come to Vermont because it’s so far unchanged in many ways, and they want that simplicity of living.”

When she started selling 17 years ago, tracts of 100 acres or more were cheap and available: “You couldn’t give that land away,” Ms. Sanville said. Now that’s not the case. “I think people are catching on to the Northeast Kingdom. People are coming up to get away from society. They want to be tucked away into the woods.”

No doubt the combination of low interest rates, the booming stock market, and growing employment and per-capita earnings have stimulated buyers’ ability to buy that home “back in the woods.” While these positive economic improvements may be partly attributed to the Trump administration, so too, may the incentive, for some, to flee like Lot from Sodom their perceived ‘national disaster’ of political polarization amid the Trump presidency. At least 20 Hollywood stars pledged in 2016 to leave the United States if Trump was elected. How many like-minded Americans have hedged their bets by moving to the woods a few miles from the Canadian border is anyone’s guess.

** * * *

If out-of-state buyers are driving this historic bump in real estate sales, it’s not for the first time in Vermont – or even the second or third. The initial turn-of-the-20th-century boom brought city folk to summer on Vermont’s shorelines (Malletts Bay) and rural countryside. According to Searls, the trend continued into the 20th century, with a big boost from people like one-time disgruntled big city resident and Landgrove summer destination community founder Sam Ogden. He helped start the state’s ski industry and co-founded Vermont Life Magazine, for decades the State of Vermont’s single most influential marketing tool to draw out-of-staters to Vermont.

Another influential ‘come-hither’ factor was construction of Interstate I-89, begun in 1960 and concluded in 1970. In 1965 the State of Vermont began ‘The Beckoning Country’ marketing campaign, and people came – including baby boomers attracted by colleges, skiing, country living, and affordable real estate. Tourists and newcomers typically have always wanted Vermont to remain green and uncluttered.

The locals have always been more ambivalent.

In the 1890’s and again in the 1960’s, many small-town residents and farmers opposed State of Vermont efforts welcoming newcomers. Searls recounts that Bennington industrialist Major Alonzo Valentine pushed hard for the 1890’s Legislature to pay transportation costs for Swedish immigrants to settle in under-developed farm towns in Southern Vermont. He found favor in the urban, elite-run Senate, but none in the ‘one-town, one-vote’ House of Representatives. The House was home to many born-and-raised Yankees committed to their own vision of ‘Vermont Life’ – intermarried families running their own local schools, churches, and communities as they had for generations. They looked askance at newcomers – especially those who spoke different languages and worshipped differently – moving in and changing things. Even when change meant more buyers for land they owned, and more employees for farms, sawmills and rock quarries, they balked.

The history of 20th century Vermont has validated their concerns about change. For better or worse, ‘traditional’ life gave way to new patterns of living.

The nail in the coffin for traditionalist, small-town control was pounded home in May, 1965, when the House voted to end one-town, one-vote in favor of reapportioning House districts by population. Small towns lost their grip on the Legislature. An increasingly urban-oriented Legislature eliminated the town-controlled ‘poor house’ in favor of state-controlled welfare (1968), banned billboards (1968), enacted Act 250’s state-controlled land use and planning (1970), and passed the anti-litter bottle bill (1972). With the possible exception of state welfare, each of these landmark initiatives served to keep Vermont green, rural, and appealing to both tourists and new Vermonters fleeing the crowded, expensive cities.

It is notable that the governors signing these bills into law were a Democratic lawyer raised in Massachusetts (Phil Hoff) and a Vermont-native Republican representing Vermont’s economic elite (Deane C. Davis, president of National Life Insurance Company).

This trend continues to this day. Vermont colleges and hip urban areas lure out-of-state young people, while their affluent elders from ‘away’ buy second homes, even as talented young people leave the state seeking better job opportunities.

Then, as now, the State is working hard to reverse the latter trend. Like Major Alonzo Valentine 130 years ago, Gov. Phil Scott bemoans the lack of young, working families and wants to literally pay people to move here. Like Valentine, Scott has taken flack from people who believe state money should be spent on resident Vermonters, or better yet, not spent at all. And like Valentine, Scott says ultimate success isn’t measured by the number of people who participate in the program, but by the scads of free publicity it created, resulting in thousands of inquiries from families interested in Vermont.

In the 1890’s, many Vermonters feared French-speaking, Roman Catholics buying Vermont farms. In fact, the ‘threat’ of hordes of Irish and French immigrants was a blatant selling point in favor of the immigrant Swedes, who were Protestant Lutherans of ‘good northern European stock’. Today, some Vermonters regret the ‘flatlanders’ who they say took over Town Meeting and the Legislature, imposing their liberal, urban values. Some native Vermonters oppose Spanish-speaking immigrants working on Vermont farms (albeit due more to their illegal immigration status than language).

As for opposing new neighbors who would worship differently: local voters, non-profits, and legislators in recent years joined in vehement opposition to NewVistas, a large, planned Mormon utopian community spanning the four towns of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge. It was never said, ‘we don’t want thousands of Mormons moving into our town.’ Concerns were more about the infrastructure impact of moving 20,000 people into one square mile. But whatever the reasons, the project developer pulled the plug in 2018.

The Vermont Legislature is still more-or-less urban-controlled, and it is still promoting an anti-sprawl, ‘green’ legislative agenda. The 2020 Legislature will consider a mandated revision of Act 250, will grapple with implementing a comprehensive Lake Champlain cleanup bill approved last year, and will debate several climate change bills aimed at meeting emissions goals set for mid-21st century. These measures will find a receptive audience in urban Chittenden County, but considerably less among some rural voters who – like their rural, native Vermont ancestors – worry that the urban elite’s vision of a tidy, green Vermont cares little for their prosperity and way of life.

As wise old King Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun.”