How much change can a rural community stand before it loses its identity as an idyllic agricultural paradise? A recent New York Times article documents how residents of Ebony, Virginia, struggle with this question. The town split over the city council’s approval to rezone a resident’s plot of agricultural land to build a Dollar General, with some wishing to preserve the area as is and others supporting the update. The threat of the yellow sign was enough to spark a movement within the former group to “Keep Ebony Country.”
The movement portrays Ebony as a near-perfect replica of the community founded in 1882, and claims the town serves as a “rare example of authentic rural America.” A Dollar General at the center of town, they claim, would cheapen the town’s image and discourage economic growth, because tourists and potential lake house owners would think the town had “sold out.” These “not-in-my-backyard” attitudes are traditionally associated with wealthy suburban communities protesting apartment complexes or women’s shelters. But as the Times article notes, some leaders of the Keep Ebony Country organization are not even full-time Ebony residents. They wish to preserve the location as a remote getaway, rather than a self-sustaining town with its own amenities.
Keep Ebony Country initiated an ongoing four-year lawsuit against the city council’s authorization that has cost Brunswick County over $150,000 to litigate. Although the group argues that selective rezoning of agricultural land for business development goes against the law, the real issue of the case is that citizens may block the development of private land because they deem the development “an eyesore” and a “traffic hazard.” As long as the lawsuit continues, Keep Ebony Country successfully prevents Dollar General’s development. These residents value their town’s appearance and atmosphere, but using the legal system to achieve their stated goal is a case of rent-seeking. They do not care about the cost for the county or its residents.
Dollar General is something of a national punchline for its near-ubiquitous presence in rural America. The chain’s business model employs a spartan crew to maintain small, leased buildings overflowing with goods, like a stripped-down Walmart for areas that sometimes lack a functional grocery store. Unlike its main competitor, suburban-focused Dollar Tree, Dollar General stocks slightly higher-priced groceries or home goods over bargain finds and tchotchkes. The company has seen its US store count more than double in the past 15 years; The chain thrives in communities with fewer than a thousand households who often earn less than $40,000 per year.
Ebony and surrounding Brunswick County fit Dollar General’s target demographic; The county has a median household income of $49,600, well below the $66,362 national median. Construction and manufacturing jobs dominate Ebony’s employment, yet nearly 20 percent of the town lives below the poverty line. There are several other chain retailers, including two Dollar Generals, within driving distance of Ebony, but the town’s 231 residents could clearly benefit from readily available and inexpensive goods. Ebony’s residents could vote for local businesses’ character or Dollar General’s lower prices with their hard-earned dollars. Keep Ebony Country’s lawsuit, however, blockades the market and denies residents the freedom of choice.
Ideals about rural America should not ignore the realities of rural America. Ebony and many other towns face rural brain drain, aging populations, and a crippling lack of access to basic services like grocery stores. There is little doubt these stores serve a purpose and arise due to a need in the market.
Motivated individuals, however, can block the entry of these “undesirables” into those markets through various laws and regulations. Rather than allowing their friends, neighbors, and the broader community to use their wallets to decide who can sell laundry detergent and tacky lawn decor, they have taken it upon themselves to decide on the community’s behalf. NIMBY attitudes in rural communities are hardly limited to Ebony or Dollar General. These and many other cases are a compelling enough argument to leave the government out of private decisions regarding the use of private property, but the pushback against reforms across the US indicate that busybodies do not want to relinquish their power.