Interpreting amenities, envisioning the future: common ground and conflict in North Carolina’s rural coastal communities
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- Boucquey, N., Campbell, L.M., Cumming, G. et al. GeoJournal (2012) 77: 83. doi:10.1007/s10708-010-9387-1
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This paper contributes to ongoing discussions about the implications of rural change and amenity migration for members of diverse rural communities. We engage with recent amenity migration and political ecology literature that focuses on social constructions of nature and landscapes, and how these constructions affect the attitudes and opinions of community members. We use our case study of a mail-based survey in Down East, North Carolina to suggest that the ways in which people conceptualize the particular ‘natures’ and landscapes of a place matters in terms of shaping people’s attitudes with respect to ongoing processes of change. We find that people’s opinions about environment, culture, and land use are often superficially similar but that when conflicts arise or particular actions are considered, substantial differences in people’s underlying conceptual frameworks are revealed. In particular we find that despite widespread shared appreciation of the environment and culture Down East, differing interpretations of these key terms lead to potential misunderstandings and land use planning challenges.
KeywordsAmenity migrationRuralHeritagePolitical ecologyLandscapeCommunityPlanning
I would like to see reasonable development, none of the Myrtle Beach high-rise type. I would like to see enough economic development that the young people don’t have to leave the area to find jobs in other parts of the state… (S#868).
More commercial fishing and less building of summer homes (S#1121).
Conservation-oriented growth with strong landscape management (S#1168).
The above responses to the question “what would you most like to see in the future of Down East?” hint at the complex economic, cultural, and environmental issues being wrestled with as community members negotiate changes in the rural coastal region of Down East, North Carolina. The changes occurring Down East reflect in many ways the global phenomena of rural restructuring and amenity migration (Cadieux and Hurley 2010; McCarthy 2008; Nelson 2001b). As in areas of the American West, Europe, and Oceania, communities Down East are grappling with declining primary production activities, increasing numbers of relatively wealthier in-migrants, and associated class and cultural tensions. How these trends are manifested locally, however, differs from otherwise similar case studies in the particular histories of how the land- and seascapes have been utilized (and conceptualized) Down East and in the resulting ways that environmental and cultural amenities are currently interpreted and valued by different segments of the communities.
This paper contributes to ongoing discussions about the implications of rural change and amenity migration in terms of how these global trends are expressed in particular communities and how physical landscapes and individual geographical imaginaries are both continually transformed in the process. Heeding recent calls for better integration of different approaches to studying the phenomenon of amenity migration (Gosnell and Abrams 2010; Walker 2010), we engage with cultural geography, environmental history, and rural sociology literatures that focus on the social construction and production of nature and landscapes (e.g., Castree and Braun 2001; Cronon 1996b; Eden 2001; Greider and Garkovich 1994), and how such constructions affect the discourses, opinions, and identities of diverse exurban community members. In addition, we draw on (primarily ‘First World’) political ecology work that addresses how these constructions of nature are employed in political forums and with what effects on the economic and ecological structures of communities (e.g., McCarthy 2002; Prudham 2007; Robbins and Sharp 2003; Walker and Hurley 2004). To some extent, we mirror the theoretical approaches taken by Walker and Fortmann (2003) and Cadieux (2010) in specifically considering productions of nature and landscape in addition to being concerned with the political and economic dimensions of changing community structures. Finally, we build on an emerging literature examining the changing rural American South in the context of amenity migration and rural gentrification (Finewood and Meletis 2009; Hurley and Halfacre 2010; Johnson et al. 2009; Nesbitt and Weiner 2001; Cumming 2007). We compare our regional similarities and differences with these studies and with the larger body of work examining amenity migration in the American West and on other continents.
Our purpose in conducting this analysis is to add a unique case study to the literature examining amenity migration and related processes, and to compare it with findings in other areas. Based on our case study, we suggest that how people conceptualize the particular ‘natures’ and landscapes—or seascapes—of a place and the history of their use matters in shaping people’s attitudes and actions with respect to ongoing processes of change. We find that people’s opinions about environment, culture, and land use are often superficially similar but that when conflicts arise or particular actions are considered, substantial differences in people’s underlying conceptual frameworks are revealed. However, these frameworks are not always easily associated with particular resident types (e.g., short-term or long-term, part-time or full-time). This paper proceeds first with a literature review and analysis of our case study location, followed by a description of our research methods. We then report the results of a mail-based survey of approximately 1,000 property owners and discuss its implications within the wider amenity migration literature.
The complexities of amenity migration
As the authors contributing to the forthcoming GeoJournal special issue Amenity Migration, Exurbia, and Emerging Rural Landscapes make clear, amenity migration and its related phenomena (exurbanization, rural gentrification) are not easily definable processes. Over the past few years, however, several authors have made efforts at defining amenity migration. Moss (2006, p. 3) describes it as simply “the migration to places that people perceive as having greater environmental quality and differentiated culture.” In his work on amenity migration in mountainous regions, Moss identifies the possession of disposable time and/or wealth as particularly facilitating the process. McCarthy (2008, p. 130) adds detail to Moss’s definition, describing amenity migration as “the purchasing of primary or second residences in rural areas valued for their aesthetic, recreational, and other consumption-orientated use values.” For McCarthy, a key component of amenity migration is this idea of consumption, and research questions focusing on how natural and cultural amenities—properties, views, recreational activities, particular social values—are being consumed in new ways are an important part of understanding the global characteristics of the phenomenon. Despite its somewhat loose definition, scholars agree that amenity migration “is contributing to the fundamental transformation of rural communities” especially in the ‘First World,’ and many questions remain about what these transformations mean for individuals, communities, regions, and within the wider context of an evolving global capitalism (Gosnell and Abrams 2010, NP).
the centrality of livelihood issues; ambiguities in property rights and the importance of informal claims to resource use and access; the importance of local histories, meanings, culture, and ‘micropolitics’ in resource use; [and] the disenfranchisement of legitimate local users and uses.
Each of these concerns are applicable to the study of amenity migration in different ways. Questions about how migrants and long-term residents make their livings, what resources they use—or explicitly do not use—in the process, and how livelihoods change over time in a particular place are especially central to thinking about the economic, cultural, and political ramifications of amenity migration (Walker and Fortmann 2003; Walker and Hurley 2004). Schroeder et al. (2006, p. 167) also comment on political ecology’s usefulness for exploring ‘First World’ phenomena, noting that “the theories of power and domination that underpin the uneven development thesis still carry a great deal of analytical weight when applied to the First World.” With respect to amenity migration, it is thus pertinent to ask how amenity migrants may be contributing to uneven development through particular commodifications of nature or by creating new regional disparities in wealth (Sayre 2010).
In existing political ecology studies addressing amenity migration, several themes stand out. Given political ecologists’ interests in the politics of resource access and in the ways discourses are employed by different groups to maintain or create political power, several studies have examined how conflicts over changing land uses have played out in the public sphere (e.g., Campbell and Meletis, in review; Johnson et al. 2009; Nesbitt and Weiner 2001; Young 2010). Walker and Fortmann (2003) and Hurley and Walker (2004), for instance, traced the contentious public planning politics that developed in Nevada County, California. They found distinctly different discourses between exurban in-migrants (interested in preserving habitats and viewsheds) and long-term locals (interested in maintaining private property rights and a working landscape) that contributed to an acrimonious, failed open-space land-use planning effort by the county government. While not explicitly employing political ecology, Smith (2002) also found competing discourses of rurality in a West Yorkshire, UK community between generally lower-income locals and the ‘yuppies’ moving in. He also found that real estate agents played a key role in constructing and commodifying the rural environment, in effect acting as ‘rural gatekeepers’ restricting certain groups’ access to particular housing areas. These studies point to the cultural and class tensions that can arise in regions experiencing amenity migration.
Related areas of concern for political ecologists and economic geographers are the community effects of moving from a productivist to a ‘post-productivist’ rural economy (McCarthy 2008; Taylor 2010). In other words, many high-amenity rural areas are transitioning from productive or ‘worked’ landscapes of farming, forestry, or fishing to landscapes primarily used for recreation or residential life. Scott et al. (2010) highlight the distress that long-term residents of communities in Wales, UK feel regarding the loss of productive agricultural lands to new developments for amenity migrants from outside Wales (developments that often employ an out-of-character architecture for the region). Related to concerns about the loss of agriculture are long-term residents’ worries about the increasing numbers of young people leaving their hometowns. Economic changes in the area are thus intimately connected with anxieties about community character and heritage, family, and the future. Hurley and Halfacre (2010) also examine the linkages between livelihoods, land use change and community heritage in the context of the sweetgrass basket-making economy of the South Carolina Lowcountry. They find that developments catering to amenity migrants, through both habitat destruction and property access restrictions, make it difficult for sweetgrass basket-makers to supply their centuries-old craft. As Cadieux and Hurley (2010) note, these and similar studies raise new questions about how traditional productive practices are being integrated with amenity consumption, and about the tradeoffs involved in switching from productive to consumptive activities.
Amenity migration-induced changes in economic and cultural activities are also associated with the notion of rural gentrification, which Gosnell and Abrams (2010, NP) define as “community change resulting from displacement of local households through increases in the cost of living and home prices.” Sociologists in particular are studying the intersection between amenity migration and rural gentrification. Several studies have explored whether long-term residents benefit from amenity migration or whether rising costs of living diminish the overall economic positions of long-term residents. Henderson and McDaniel (1998) found that employment and incomes were higher and grew faster in scenic versus non-scenic rural counties, suggesting that amenity migration might contribute to gross economic growth. Hunter et al. (2005) also found that long-term residents of high-growth rural amenity areas had higher incomes than their counterparts in lower-amenity areas. However, they found that these income increases were largely due to proliferating low-wage service sector employment and that income increases were negated by higher costs of living (Hunter et al. 2005; Saint Onge et al. 2007). Others have suggested that increases in land values are particularly likely to cause financial hardship for long-term residents in rural amenity areas (Ghose 2004; Löffler and Steinicke 2006). However, as Nelson (1997) makes clear, issues of rural growth are more complicated than simple old-timer/newcomer conflicts, with both newcomers and old-timers more economically and culturally diverse than is often portrayed. Particularly given the tendency for local planning commissions to concentrate on simplistic community representations and gross economic growth in making development decisions, Burby (2003) argues that it is thus essential for researchers and planners to address the less tangible, but fundamentally important social, political, and environmental implications of changing development patterns.
Considering heritage, landscapes, and nature
It is important to consider social constructions of land and landscapes with respect to how existing communities and amenity migrants conceptualize their working, recreational, and everyday relationships with particular locations. Greider and Garkovich (1994, p. 1) define landscapes as “symbolic environments created by human acts of conferring meaning to nature and the environment, of giving the environment definition and form from a particular angle of vision and through a special filter of values and beliefs.” Indeed, the many unique ‘filters’ through which different people conceptualize landscapes can create difficulties in communicating and reaching agreement about land uses in a particular area. Walker and Fortmann (2003), for instance, describe conflicting ‘landscape visions’ between amenity migrants seeing landscapes of natural beauty and old-timers seeing the very same places as landscapes of production. This is a common divide in regions experiencing amenity migration (e.g., Halseth 1998; Smith 2002). And as Cronon (1996a, p. 16) reminds us, visions of landscape are intimately related to livelihoods, noting that “the dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living.” In a ‘Third World’ example of the material dangers of this particular fantasy, Neumann (2003) relates the cautionary tale of how privileging the consumption of scenic non-human nature over human labor in Serengeti National Park effectively denied thousands of years of human access to the land and altered land-use patterns outside the park. It is thus crucial to examine the relationships between socially constructed and material landscapes [keeping in mind that both are intertwined and continually being reshaped (Paquette and Domon 2003)].
In thinking about how amenity communities interact with imagined and material landscapes, questions about how histories and natures are produced can be informative. Walker (2010) argues that including deeper discussions of history in studies of exurbia is important for both understanding the economic place of a community within historical development patterns and also for understanding how particular meanings come to be associated with particular places (which may then be contested as amenity migrants move in). Further, Harvey (1996, p. 173) reminds us that discourses about nature are always “moments in a social process in which conflicting forms of social power struggle to gain command of institutions, social relations and material practices for particular purposes.” It is thus useful to consider who controls the formation and promulgation of particular messages about the nature or history of a place, and who benefits from such discursive constructions. As Jacob et al. (2005) point out in a study of historic fishing communities, the use of ‘heritage narratives’ is never politically neutral: messages touting an area’s rich commercial fishing culture may be easily co-opted by people (such as developers, tourist-attraction operators, or restaurateurs) whose activities may actually diminish the viability of commercial fishing by altering patterns of land use and employment. Real estate developers in particular use images and stories to commodify the (sometimes already extinct) heritages or natural resources of particular places (Larsen et al. 2007; Park and Coppack 1994; Smith 2002). Given that many competing discourses about a place may exist simultaneously, it is perhaps unsurprising that amenity migrants’ ideas about what is ‘rural’ or ‘natural’ may frequently clash with longtime residents’ understandings of these same concepts (Gosnell and Abrams 2010).
Indeed, particular constructions of landscape, nature, and property by long-term residents and migrants may have substantial effects on the ways amenity migration is manifested in specific places. For instance, Yung and Belsky (2007) explain how amenity migration disrupted established patterns of land use and property rights in the Mountain West as newcomers and long-term residents held distinctly different ideas about fences and trespassing, with newcomers being less willing to allow casual use of their properties. In discussing tensions between amenity migrants and long-term residents over the meaning of landscapes, however, it is important not to lose sight of the heterogeneity of communities (Gosnell and Abrams 2010; Nelson 2001a; Nesbitt and Weiner 2001). The influx of amenity migrants and associated development can act as a catalyst within already heterogeneous communities, sparking discussions about the character of their region and desired or undesired land uses. In areas with historic ties to particular activities, the importance of heritage for some segments of the community may become magnified as threats to it are perceived (Paulsen 2007). Sometimes when a particular activity (such as ranching or commercial fishing) no longer supports a community economically, it may retain cultural dominance in local conceptions of place (Jacob et al. 2005; Sheridan 2001). Nevertheless, even in areas where there appears to be broad agreement, people’s attitudes toward a community’s natural and cultural resources may be quite nuanced. Nesbitt and Weiner (2001), for instance, found a ‘social layering’ of geographical imaginaries among community members in Central Appalachia which could not be simply assigned to ‘locals’ and ‘outsiders.’
The heterogeneity of discourses and understandings of nature and culture in communities experiencing amenity migration can lead to difficulties for both researchers (in defining the issues and processes at work) and for public planners (in communicating ideas and intentions to a community) (Cadieux 2010; Walker and Fortmann 2003). Cadieux (2010) argues that planning discourses commonly use the category ‘nature’ in ways that obstruct instead of facilitate public discussion. She describes two key problems with nature discourses in public planning spheres; including slippage, or confusion among multiple meanings, and naturalization, or moral claims about nature that tend to shut down discussion. Cadieux notes that both of these problems return to the questions of whose nature will be managed, in what ways, and for what ends. Walker (2010) also notes that planning difficulties arise not just through conflicts between planners’ and citizens’ conceptions of nature or landscape, but also through the lack of understanding scholars have of amenity migrants’ aspirations. We have made little progress to date understanding what their ultimate goals are in relocating and how these goals may or may not coincide with those of longtime residents. Walker argues that achieving a better understanding of such aspirations could lead to a more precise definition and explication of exurbia and amenity migration.
The literature discussed above is useful in considering how the attitudes expressed by landowners in our case study area relate to their underlying conceptualizations of key concepts like environment, culture, and property. Our study is informed by previous work that examines the links between changing productive and consumptive practices associated with amenity migration and the concerns of different resident groups toward new economies and changing cultural and physical landscapes. Our analysis furthers these investigations by examining the differences between broadly-stated attitudes and more specific explanations of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’; and by revealing some of the complexity and contradictions found in a changing region.
The Down East context: coastal communities confront change
Originally home to the Tuscarora tribe of Native Americans, English settlers arrived in the Down East area in the early 1700s. For most of the past 300 years, residents Down East made a living primarily through commercial fishing and its support industries (e.g., processing facilities, boat building, and transport services). Over the past three decades, however, the commercial fishing industry Down East has slowly declined, and with it have gone many of the small business and services that support the communities there. For example, the area used to include about 30 fish houses; there are now approximately five left in business. Grocery stores, banks, and medical facilities have shut their doors, and community schools have declining enrollments that threaten their viability. While many residents’ incomes are still linked to commercial fishing, others are now employed by the State ferry system or by the large U.S. Marine Corps base in the nearby town of Havelock. In this way, Down East is experiencing some of the same challenges faced by rural communities elsewhere in the country- we see a decline in extractive industry (in this case fishing) and an increase in problems associated with declining year-round populations.
As a set of unincorporated communities, governance of the region falls to the county level; Down East is governed by the seven-member Carteret County Board of Commissioners. The Down East district elects one member of this board, based on their population in comparison to the remainder of the county. Land use decisions are made based on the 2005 Land Use Plan. Down East thus currently has no municipal or regional level zoning in place (since no areas are incorporated) and until recently, local custom dictated the construction of mostly one-story, modest wood or brick homes. However, as amenity migration has driven the proliferation of relatively expensive multi-story homes that tend to ‘stand out’ on the landscape, some residents have grown increasingly anxious about the future of their communities. In 2006, a group calling itself ‘Down East Tomorrow’ asked the Carteret County Board of Commissioners to consider a one-year moratorium on new large-scale residential and marina development projects so that Down East communities could consider how best to plan for the future. The members of Down East Tomorrow included both long-term residents and recent migrants who shared generally favorable attitudes toward planning processes. The proposal was rejected by the Board of Commissioners on the grounds that it would place unacceptable restrictions on development.
The public debate about the proposed moratorium was highly politicized and often acrimonious (see Campbell and Meletis, in review). While not quite reaching the prolonged levels of acrimony described by Walker and Hurley (2004) and Hurley and Walker (2004) in their study of a failed community planning process in the Sierra Nevadas, the experience Down East nevertheless raised similar questions about whose vision for the area matters and whose definitions of environment and culture would guide future development. During the publicly-recorded debate about development Down East, both those for and against the proposed development moratorium argued that large segments of ‘the people’ Down East were not being heard, and a frequent comment was that there was some type of ‘silent majority’. Both proponents and opponents claimed segments of this ‘silent’ group. Thus, a primary impetus for this research stemmed from the dearth of data on how residents and landowners Down East actually think and feel about development, and how this data could help explain the concerns and aspirations of different groups with a stake in the Down East region. In collecting this data, we aimed to explore how amenity migration is affecting this rural coastal area and how such migration fits into larger questions about rural restructuring and changing conceptions of environment and culture.
This paper focuses on the results of a randomized mail survey of Down East landowners. However, this survey comprised only one aspect of a larger mixed-methods project conducted with input from several Down East community members and groups.2 As discussed above, the impetus for the project itself stemmed from a vocalized need by several community members for more information about the different opinions and desires of those not actively attending planning meetings, as well as the more theoretical interests of the authors in the processes of amenity migration at work in the area. Thus in addition to the mail survey, the project also included a door-to-door survey (conducted prior to the mail survey), approximately 70 videotaped semi-structured interviews with a cross-section of community member types, and the creation of a documentary film (based on the interviews), which was then shared in a series of three public meetings where community members discussed potential futures for the area in small group sessions. Although we emphasize the mail survey in this paper, we mention the larger project here to place the survey in context and to note that our interpretations of survey responses are influenced by our lengthy and continuing involvement in Down East communities.
In order to investigate the attitudes of Down East residents, we surveyed a random sample of the property-owning population in November 2008. Carteret County tax assessor parcel data were obtained for the Down East area, and after removing parcels with no address or with public functions (i.e., schools, fire stations), twenty percent of parcels were randomly sampled. These samples were geographically stratified by township, producing samples proportional to the population size of each township. We thus identified 1,070 addresses to survey out of the approximately 5,300 total addresses Down East. Surveys were administered following the Dillman tailored design method (Dillman 2000). Surveys were mailed in hand-addressed envelopes to the billing address of each property identified. Follow-up mailings included a reminder postcard sent one week after the first mailing, and a second questionnaire sent three weeks after the first. A self-addressed, stamped envelope was included with each survey. After accounting for duplicates and undeliverable surveys, 965 original surveys were received by landowners.
We asked respondents a variety of opinion questions regarding the character of their communities, the pace and style of development, and their levels of support for potential policy measures that could affect the future of the area. We modeled the survey after a similar instrument used in western North Carolina, where Southern Appalachian communities are also experiencing growth and development conflicts (Cumming et al. 2008). In this paper, we analyze the mail survey results of several key Likert-scale and open-ended questions about community, culture, environment, and property rights, with particular attention to differences of opinion between respondents with shorter- and longer-term connections to the region, a variable we label ‘generational connection to Down East.’ For the Likert-scale questions, we compute Chi-square values to test whether such differences are statistically significant, and we report the means in order to indicate the direction of variation in responses by the different groups.3 For the open-ended questions, we report the trends in responses in terms of the themes identified through reading and coding the data.
In our statistical analysis, we divide respondents into four generational connection categories: those with no residential connection to Down East (i.e., absentee landholders), first generation residents (i.e., moved to Down East within their lifetime), second generation residents, or those whose families have resided Down East for three or more generations.4 This approach is unusual in the literature, where residents are most often categorized as either ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders.’ We go beyond these binary breakdowns because related work by Cumming (2007) in other rural North Carolina communities identified varied generational connections to place to be a meaningful metric and because our related research on grassroots organizing in the face of development Down East reveals no easy distinctions between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (Campbell and Meletis, in review). We believe the generational connections analysis generally provides a more nuanced look into the opinions of the changing population Down East. However, we also present our results in terms of a comparison between full- and part-time residents and discuss where this is also a useful measure.
Survey respondent demographics
Median age category
Median reported income
Median education level
Some trade school or community college
Survey completed by
Properties owned Down East
More than one
Generations lived Down East
0 (absentee owners)
3 or more
Characteristics of landowners Down East
Generational connection to Down East
Full sample % true
None % true
One % true
Two % true
Three or more % true
Live Down East full time
Live Down East part time
Engage in commercial fishing
Engage in recreational fishing
Income is or was linked to Down East land or water resources
Have income of over $50,000/year
Opinions about community, environment, and planning Down East
Opinion statement from survey
Generational connection to Down East
Full sample % agree (Mean)
None % agreea (Mean)b
One % agree (Mean)
Two % agree (Mean)
Three or more % agree (Mean)
I am part of the community
I believe the communities Down East should focus on preserving culture and heritage
I am attracted to the beauty of the land and water here
I would support policy measures to protect the natural environment
I would support measures to ensure enough affordable housing
An individual should be able to do whatever he or she wants with his or her property
The changes brought by development are inevitable; we can’t do anything about them
I would support land use zoning by the County
I would support incorporation (Down East towns become municipalities)
Part-time and full-time resident opinions about community, environment, and planning Down East
Opinion Statement from Survey
Part time or full time residential status
Part time % agreea (mean)b
Full time % agree (mean)
Full sample % agree (mean)
I am part of the community
I believe the communities Down East should focus on preserving culture and heritage
I am attracted to the beauty of the land and water here
I would support policy measures to protect the natural environment
I would support measures to ensure enough affordable housing
An individual should be able to do whatever he or she wants with his or her property
The changes brought by development are inevitable; we can’t do anything about them
I would support land use zoning by the County
I would support incorporation (Down East towns become municipalities)
The design of our survey questionnaire, which included both Likert-scale and short-answer sections addressing similar topics, allows for comparisons to be made between the general attitudes of different groups and their more explicit conceptualizations of key terms and ideas. In the following sections we first summarize the Likert-scale responses (Tables 3, 4) with respect to salient themes Down East and then discuss evidence from the short-answer questions, which often complicate the Likert-scale responses.
Heritage, culture, and community
In terms of Likert-scale responses regarding culture, over 80% of respondents in all categories stated that they appreciated the cultural heritage Down East, and even higher numbers agreed that the area should focus on preserving culture and heritage. Nevertheless, as noted above there were still statistically significant differences between generational categories, with support for preserving culture and heritage Down East higher among longer-generation residents. We also found significant differences among survey respondents in terms of whether or not they felt a part of their community, with over 90% of full-timers and third-generation residents feeling part of their community but less than 70% of shorter-generation residents and only about half of part-timers feeling a part of their community.
We also asked respondents to further describe what they valued about the culture and heritage of Down East. Specifically, we asked them to complete the sentence “the most important part of Down East heritage is…” There was widespread agreement by all survey respondents that the key components of Down East’s heritage are its people and its history of water-related activities including fishing and boatbuilding. People valued “living on and with the water” (S#286), “the fishing history and boatbuilding” (S#865), and “the tenacity of its people [who] preserve and remember the past as well as try to retain a working relationship with the water” (S#119). Similarly, people appreciated “having small communities where everyone knows everyone and gets along with each other” (S#999). There was often a sense of loss associated with people’s comments about the heritage of Down East. For one respondent, Down East’s heritage was embodied in “the fishing industry which years ago supported in Atlantic three general stores, grills, pool halls and a theater—imagine that!” (S#878). For another, it was the “locals with their ‘ways’ and speech which is all but lost” (S#811). In addition, there was another group of responses which identified the Down East ‘lifestyle’ as its most important heritage. While full- and part-time residents commented in approximately equal numbers on the lifestyle Down East, their interpretations of what constituted the region’s lifestyle differed. For full-timers, the lifestyle Down East was about “pride and independence” (S#594) and the “freedom to do what you like” (S#274); while part-timers valued the “rural coastal living” (S#544), the “laid back and conservation values” (S#615), and the ability to “see a different time/era” (S#301). Thus for full-time residents, definitions of lifestyle tended to be associated with self-sufficiency and ‘freedom,’ while for part-time residents the Down East lifestyle was associated with the tranquility and ‘quaintness’ of the region.
Environment and natural resources
In terms of opinions about natural resources, all respondents demonstrated a strong appreciation of the land and water resources Down East on the Likert-scale portion of the survey. Ninety-seven percent of all respondents, with no significant differences between generational groups or between full- and part-timers, stated that they appreciated the natural environment Down East. 98% were attracted by the beauty of the area, and 93% claimed they would support policy measures to protect the environment Down East. In addition, 97% of respondents claimed they would also support measures specifically aimed at protecting water quality.
Despite the broad Likert-scale agreement regarding the importance of the environment, we found a range of views in the short answer section regarding how people feel about nature Down East. When asked to describe the natural environment Down East, respondents demonstrated three primary viewpoints: that it is beautiful and pristine; that it is fragile and in need of protection; and that it is declining or being destroyed by development. The most popular response among all groups was that the nature Down East is “too wonderful for words” (S#597), “breathtakingly beautiful” (S#389), and “the most pristine on the eastern seaboard” (S#854). On the other hand, almost as many people felt that the nature Down East is “not like it used to be” (S#278), “being destroyed” (S#133), and “deteriorating because of pollution and development” (S#903). In what is an indication of the complexity of viewpoints, approximately proportional numbers7 of the different groups (part-timers, full-timers, shorter- and longer-generation residents) felt each way about the environment Down East. However, part-time residents were disproportionately more vocal about the necessity of obtaining protection for the natural environment. As one part-timer put it, the nature Down East is “a unique and beautiful treasure that should be protected” (S#129).
For multiple-generation Down East residents, ‘nature’ is often inseparable from the history and culture of the region. This differs from how other residents describe nature Down East. For example, one multiple-generation resident explained that the natural environment Down East was “pristine, abundant, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, fishermen, fishing, scalloping and crabbing and balancing the environment” (S#1064). Another longtime resident explained that nature Down East included “the freedom to roam the land and Core Sound,” (S#365) and yet another noted that it was “still viewed daily by the local families which depend on it for their survival” (S#1165). This linking of environment with the culture of fishing and related values of independence is common among Down Easters with lengthy generational connections to the region. In contrast, many part-time residents view Down East not as an integral part of their daily lives but rather as an escape from ‘real’ life, an environment in contrast to their typical work environments. As one part-timer mentioned, Down East is “a great place to escape the rat race” (S#556), and another described it as their “escape from the pressures of the West Coast” (S#1096). A part-timer living elsewhere in North Carolina called Down East “a total escape from the industrial and business sections of the state” (S#696). For some, therefore, the landscape Down East is a component of daily life- part of a familiar routine which might include earning a living; while for others it represents a type of escape or haven.
Property, planning, and development
In the Likert-scale portion of the survey we found significant differences in the strength of people’s feelings about the importance of private property, with full-time residents and those with longer generational connections to Down East demonstrating the strongest desires to maintain control over private property. For instance, 75% of third-generation residents claimed that an individual should be able to do whatever he or she wants to his or her property while only 53% of first-generation residents agreed. The strength of agreement here was also substantially greater among third-generation residents than first-generation residents (Table 3). Those with no generational connection to Down East expressed higher agreement with the notion that an individual should have free reign over one’s property than either first- or second-generation residents. This may reflect the fact that some absentee owners have not yet developed their Down East properties and thus may be wary of potential land-use regulations.
In terms of land use and planning questions, all groups expressed dissatisfaction with the existing Carteret County Board of Commissioners. Only 14% of survey respondents felt the Commissioners were doing a good job of regulating development Down East, while 92% felt that the public should have a role in developing land use guidelines for Down East. With respect to specific regulatory tools, however, responses were mixed. Only about half of all survey respondents supported incorporation or zoning as potential land-use planning measures. Furthermore, we found significant differences among community members with respect to zoning, with third-generation and full-time residents significantly less likely to support zoning than part-time residents or those with shorter generational connections to Down East. At the same time, full-time residents were significantly more likely to believe that development Down East was inevitable. On the other hand, full-timers and multi-generation residents were more likely to support policy measures aimed at ensuring affordable housing in the area. In addition, 79% of survey respondents stated that they would support policy measures to ensure that new development ‘fits in’ with the way Down East looks.
With respect to specific land uses, we asked survey respondents to describe in their own words what types of development they would or would not want to see in the future of Down East (i.e., “development I [would/would not] like to see Down East includes…”). There was substantial common ground regarding development people did not want to see Down East-the overwhelming majority of responses from all groups singled out condominiums or high-rise hotels and apartments as something they absolutely did not want to see in the region. Respondents expressed fear that they would “become like Bogue Bankers”8 (S#431) if high-rise complexes were developed in the region. In other areas responses were quite varied, with segments of all groups supporting limited development that would “provide jobs and stimulate the local economy but not to the point that locals cannot afford to live there or natural beauty is compromised” (S#509). When asked what they would like to see generally in the future Down East, many respondents called for more employment options and “permanent people mooring in that support our schools and churches” (S#1027). About 35 people explicitly wanted Down East to maintain its status quo, but similar numbers called for some kind of planning to guide future development. One respondent wanted to see “more interest in preserving our heritage by both local residents and county/state government” (S#353), and another wanted “more say in how the changes are planned for” (S#258). These answers highlights the heterogeneity of the communities Down East in the many opinions for how its future should unfold; opinions which in this case were not easily differentiated by particular demographic groups.
Given that Harkers Island is the community Down East that has seen the greatest amount of concentrated new development over the past decade, we asked respondents to fill in the sentence “Harkers Island is…” There were three major themes in terms of how people described Harkers Island, each of which received similar numbers of responses (between 70 and 100 each). The first set of responses described the island in glowing terms, as a wonderful and unique place that many call home. People described Harkers Island as “a charming, quaint community” (S#950), “a jewel in Carteret County” (S#253), and “paradise on earth” (S#306). Slightly more part-timers than would be expected proportionally described Harkers Island in these terms. As one part-time resident noted, Harkers Island is “an attractive area for retirement with growing needs for boating access” (S#809) and another described it as “my home (future) and the place I would most like to see preserved” (S#513). The second set of comments described Harkers Island in very different terms, primarily as overcrowded or overdeveloped. Here, slightly more full-timers describe it in these terms than would be expected proportionally. In contrast to the idyllic scenes described above, these responses called Harkers Island “overdeveloped and poorly developed” (S#1129), “getting built up and expensive” (S#852), and “changing fast due to pressures of real estate development and traffic” (S#353). One full-time resident explained that it was “my home but it has become too crowded with people I don’t know” and another claimed it was “too full of dingbatters”9 (S#789). These diverse responses highlight the different perspectives that various generational and residential groups bring to their experience Down East.
The third theme in responses about Harkers Island was more extreme and centered around Harkers Island as the example to avoid- the epitome of development ‘gone wrong’ Down East. These comments describe development there as a ‘tragic example’ of what could follow for the rest of Down East. Over two-thirds of those utilizing the tragedy narrative were full-time residents, and their opinions were very strongly expressed. A number of comments focused on the loss of local culture and the feeling that the area was being essentially sold to wealthy outsiders. Harkers Island was depicted by these residents as “becoming a rich man’s island” (S#193), “turning into a place to visit but not live in” (S#869), and “an example of what happens when the local culture is sold to the highest bidder” (S#252). Similarly, others described it as “gone to money people” (S#1003) and “a good example of how immigrants can destroy (buy) your way of life” (S#987). One resident stated starkly that Harkers Island “has moved to McCabe’s trailer park”10 (S#1045). The real bitterness underlying these comments reflects not just concerns about development itself, but what some longtime Down East residents see as a co-opting of their culture and a resentment at being priced out of the most desirable real estate Down East.
A key motivation in conducting this research was to understand some of the attitudes and values underlying past development conflicts Down East (such as the moratorium debate) as well as to explore what different residents desired for the future of the area. We sought to do this within a framework that would help us to understand how people’s attitudes were related to their demographic status and how residents of Down East might exhibit similar or different attitudes from residents in other areas experiencing amenity migration. In this section, we discuss our findings in relation to the existing literature, first with respect to how key amenities are conceptualized Down East and then in terms of residents’ aspirations for the future.
The structure of our survey was particularly useful in analyzing the differences between broad support for key concepts and individual understandings or interpretations of those concepts. It enabled us to probe the notion of slippage, where different meanings may be applied by groups of people to a single concept or term (Cadieux 2010). Overall we found that slippage was common, particularly in people’s interpretations of the environment and culture Down East. Divergent interpretations sometimes—but not always—aligned with key demographic categories.
Down East respondents’ interpretations of ‘environment,’ for instance, complicate our existing knowledge about how different resident types interpret their surroundings. Our finding that all respondent categories held similar broad appreciation for the natural resources Down East agrees with several studies which also found that newcomers and old-timers alike place similar values on the natural resources of a particular area (Fortmann and Kusel 1990; McBeth and Foster 1994; Smith and Krannich 2000; Brehm et al. 2004). The open-response portion of our survey allowed us to see, however, that in fact there were several distinct interpretations of the condition of the environment Down East (ranging from ‘pristine’ to ‘destroyed’) which were not associated with one demographic group or another. In other words, there were clear differences in the interpretation of the state of ‘nature’ Down East which could not be ascribed to a person’s migrant status. This differs, for instance, from the distinct discourses found in the American West where in-migrants have generally labeled the environment as ‘threatened’ while locals have disputed these claims (Walker and Fortmann 2003; Walker and Hurley 2004). The different perceptions of the ‘state’ of the environment might impact on any attempts to implement policies to protect the environment, even though support for such policies in general are shared.
We did find differences between demographic groups in terms of how they are currently using the natural resources Down East and how they believe such resources should be used in the future. For example, over 55% of third-generation resident incomes are directly linked to the natural resources Down East, while less than 20% of each of the other groups’ incomes involve natural resources. Further, new residents are more likely to use Down East’s natural resources recreationally (e.g., as with fishing) while longer-generation residents are more likely to use them commercially. These findings agree with similar studies highlighting that long-term residents’ livelihoods are often more closely linked to the productivity of an area’s natural resources (while newcomers are more inclined to recreate in them) (Hurley and Halfacre 2010; Klepeis et al. 2009; Scott et al. 2010; Sheridan 2001; Walker and Fortmann 2003). These current uses are perhaps linked to the more ‘productivist’ versus more ‘consumptivist’ attitudes we find between longer-generation residents and others, particularly part-time residents. Indeed, changing economic patterns in rural areas can produce rifts between segments of communities employed in ‘productivist’ versus ‘post-productivist’ sectors (McCarthy 2008). Longer-generation residents’ tendency to mix references to both ‘environmental’ (e.g., clean water, sunsets) and ‘cultural’ (e.g., family gatherings, fishing) activities when discussing the environment Down East suggests a more ‘productivist’ or use-oriented mindset among this group. When contrasted with the tendency of some (though not all) part-time residents to characterize the region as an escape from reality, some of the tensions with respect to land and water uses Down East become more understandable. Similar to the way longtime residents of Wales, UK feel regarding the loss of productive agricultural lands (Scott et al. 2010), many multi-generational residents Down East also express anxiety about the perceived loss of an active fishing industry and diminished water access. Thus, added to differing perceptions of the state of the environment are different ideas of how such environments are used. And these, we find, are often linked to historical ties to the area and ideas of culture.
As with the notion of environment, some of the basic characteristics of Down East ‘culture’ were generally agreed upon by different demographic groups, but the more daily lives and activities were discussed, the more slippage we found in the concept. For instance, we found distinctly different interpretations of the ‘lifestyle’ Down East. Here again, these interpretations largely aligned with more productivist versus more consumptivist perspectives. While all groups shared a general narrative about Down East as having a fishing- and water-oriented culture, when making specific comments part-time residents tended to describe the culture Down East in more consumptivist (and static) terms. Whereas full-timers often discussed the Down East lifestyle in terms of work or other interactions with the water, part-timers were more likely to describe it in terms that evoked a sense of separation or viewing distance, for instance as ‘quaint’ or charming. While subtle, these differences nevertheless help us understand how broadly-proclaimed desires to preserve Down East heritage may mask important variations in how this heritage is interpreted. For some, environment as a concept is inseparable to its long history of use and to cultural identity. For others, environment and culture are more easily separable.
Our findings reinforce that amenity migrant communities are heterogeneous (Gosnell and Abrams 2010; Nelson 1997; Nesbitt and Weiner 2001), but that distinct discourses about salient concepts, such as ‘environment’ and ‘culture,’ are identifiable. In most cases, we found discursive differences Down East to be aligned with differences in respondents’ residency or generational status. However, those demographic characteristics did not prove consistently reliable in predicting respondent perspectives. These findings suggest that thoroughly characterizing the competing discourses in amenity migration communities may be more valuable than working to associate those discourses with particular demographic groups.
Given their constructions of environment and culture, what are some of the aspirations of different community members? This is a key first question for amenity migrant communities in terms of thinking about how to structure future planning efforts (Walker 2010). In Down East, people’s aspirations for the future are directly tied to the changes occurring there today. As we saw with questions about environment and culture, there was substantial overlap among all groups with respect to what they claimed they would like to see in the future (i.e., better employment options, perhaps some more residential development but without condominiums or high-rises). Once again, however, when specific places or particular actions are considered, residents’ opinions become more precise and the cultural and class tensions associated with a changing landscape Down East become clearer. This is most obvious with respect to opinions about development on Harkers Island, where we found a deep well of resentment among a segment of the full-time residents Down East toward the development they saw as changing the character of the island and pricing locals out of the area.
The unease felt by some Down East community members toward Harkers Island, and development in general, is linked to disparities in wealth and differing ideas about the types of productive and consumptive activities that should occur in the region. In Down East it is the residents with the longest generational connections to the area who have the lowest incomes, agreeing with studies in the American West and U.K. where in-migrants have also been shown to be generally wealthier than long-term residents (Ghose 2004; Löffler and Steinicke 2006; Smith 2002). This situation highlights a problem with uneven development that is one of the key issues with amenity migration (Sayre 2010). Indeed, the development on Harkers Island is increasingly becoming expensive development only accessible to outside capital- there are very few jobs Down East that could finance a new three-story waterfront home. These new patterns of growth in wealthy amenity migrant areas raise questions about how traditional productive practices are being integrated with amenity consumption, and what tradeoffs are involved between the two processes (Cadieux and Hurley 2010). In several areas of Harkers Island, for instance, residents have already witnessed the transformation of open-access waterfront and working harbor area to closed shoreline and recreational boat docks. Overall in Down East, longtime resident concerns about new residents moving into expensive subdivisions are closely intertwined with anxieties about these tradeoffs as well as economic and employment uncertainties (i.e., the future of the fishing industry), concerns about career options for younger generations, and feelings of cultural and environmental losses.
Given people’s varying opinions with respect to existing development and their concerns about the future, specific attitudes toward planning Down East are also important to consider. Unlike many other areas experiencing amenity migration where planners and public officials are very involved in a particular region (with either positive or negative effects) (Johnson et al. 2009; Scott et al. 2010; Walker and Fortmann 2003), local government appears largely disengaged with Down East. Other than officiating the moratorium debate (which was initiated by a group of Down East residents), the county government has shown little interest in hosting community forums or engaging in any sort of comprehensive planning in the region. At the same time, the idea of planning is an extremely complex issue for Down East residents themselves. Although as noted above, 92% of respondents believe the public should have a role in developing land use guidelines Down East—and people have very distinct opinions about what types of development they would or would not like to see in the region—there are also strong anti-planning, anti-government feelings in the area (particularly among full-time residents). This internal conflict is recognized by many residents, who will often in the same breath lament the out-of-character development occurring Down East while affirming the rights of property owners to do as they please with their land. It is then somewhat ironic that ideas of planning and zoning are more supported by newcomers and part-time residents, who are most responsible for changes in the character of the area. This trend is in contrast to what Jobes (2000) found in Montana, where oldtimers were more supportive of planning than newcomers, but is similar to what Walker and Fortmann (2003) found in the Sierra Nevada where newcomers were more pro-planning and anti-development than locals.
Researching the phenomenon of amenity migration involves examining how conceptualizations of landscape, nature, and culture combine and are manifested in particular places (Gosnell and Abrams 2010; Walker 2010; Yung and Belsky 2007). At the same time, it is imperative to pay attention to how these conceptualizations are interlinked with people’s livelihoods and with local, regional, and larger economic structures. Indeed, studies of amenity migration should explore how amenity consumption and resource production are being integrated, and what tradeoffs are involved between the two for different actors in a community (Cadieux and Hurley 2010). In Down East, the confluence of particular understandings of heritage and landscape, rural livelihood uncertainty, and population losses in the midst of increased residential development have helped to create the multidimensional (and sometimes conflicting) geographical imaginaries of heterogenous community members. These conceptual frameworks then influence how particular individuals interact with the land- and seascapes Down East, both through their personal resource use and through their support for (or opposition to) different forms of resource governance.
In thinking about the implications of these different imaginaries and actions, it may be useful to return explicitly to the concept of space. As Smith (1984, p. 116) notes, “this society no longer accepts space as a container, but produces it; we do not live, act, and work ‘in’ space so much as by living, acting, and working we produce space.” In this sense, amenity migrants are creating new spaces, spaces that are experienced and interpreted differently by diverse members of particular communities. As our survey showed, the residential or generational status of different community members can provide clues to how they might think about and interact with these spaces, but they are not easy predictors of individual or collective attitudes and actions. These must be discerned through careful attention to the multiple circulating discourses of a place. Since “every discourse says something about a space (places or sets of places); and every discourse is emitted from a space,” such discourses can help us untangle the complex processes and problems of amenity migration (Lefebvre 1991, p. 132). Indeed, the challenge for researchers is to identify the unique spaces from which discourses originate (and about which they speak) and to relate these discourses to the particular socioeconomic and political changes occurring in an amenity migrant region.
Population figures are by township. Straits Township includes the communities of Straits, Bettie, Otway, and Gloucester.
The project design received input from a cross-section of community members, including those on either side of the moratorium debate.
Although it is common practice in the social sciences to treat Likert-scale questions as interval (numeric) data, here we treat the Likert scale categories as nominal data (using the Chi-square test to compare numbers of people in agreement with particular statements) to avoid assuming that respondents would all assign the same meanings or numerical weights to the response categories ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree.’ However, we do report the means in order to give an idea of the strength of opinions for each response.
These categories were the answer options to our survey question “Including yourself, how many generations of your family have lived Down East, either full-time or part-time?”
Given the number of total addresses Down East, our sample size of 483 produces a margin of error of approximately ±5% at a 95% confidence level (Rea and Parker 2005). Non-response among different groups of people was fairly even, although Carteret County residents made up a slightly smaller proportion of responses than would be expected. While 66% of all surveys were mailed to Carteret County residents, they comprised approximately 61% of responses.
As a reviewer of this paper correctly pointed out, it is worth keeping in mind that statistical significance does not necessarily translate into practical significance (e.g., some of the statistically significant differences we find with respect to opinions on development and other issues may not necessarily translate into different votes or other political actions).
Proportional to the total number of surveys returned by each group.
An area of Carteret County substantially developed with condominium complexes, many of which are owned as vacation properties.
People who were not born Down East; outsiders.
A mobile home park in mainland Down East.
This research was funded by North Carolina Sea Grant and the Duke University Marine Lab, and Meletis’ participation was supported by the University of Northern British Columbia. We are grateful to the many volunteers who assisted with administering our survey: Sean Crowder, Caroline Good, Bill Herring, Alice Ren, Katherine Straus, Lori Troutman, and Danielle Waples. We thank Myriah Cornwell, Amy Freitag, Nicholas Mallos, and Cristina Villanueva for comments on an early draft. We especially acknowledge the interest and support of a number of people Down East who have provided guidance throughout the project, in particular Karen Amspacher and Gail Cannon. Finally, we thank the many people who completed and returned our survey.