- “To Strike A Fair Balance”: The Peacemakers and the Community Land Trust Movement in West Virginia, 1970–1982
The 1970s have long been characterized as the “Me Decade,” one dominated by self-indulgence, rejection of public activism, and preference for private institutions and personal introspection. When Tom Wolfe penned his grim assessment of the decade in 1976, it seemed at the time that Americans, war weary and concerned about their own economic survival, had little left to give in terms of service to their communities and their nation. Instead, they turned inward, looking for meaning in New Age spirituality, Esalen retreats, or evangelical Christianity.1 Yet this characterization, while partially accurate, does little to reveal the full picture of this misunderstood decade. It veils a separate, but related, impulse toward community that simultaneously shaped American social, economic, and political institutions. If the decade had been all about the self, how does one make sense of flourishing cooperative institutions, potent grassroots campaigns, and broad-based coalitions that formed during the decade? The events of the late 1960s and 1970s that strained Americans’ pocketbooks and drove deep wedges into American society might have exacerbated tendencies toward cultural separatism and “taking care of one’s own.” At the same time, however, they simultaneously prompted greater civic engagement on the local level, coalition-building on regional and national levels, and heightened interest in community development.2
Community land trusts (CLTs) emerged as one expression of this impulse toward community that shaped many people’s responses to economic and social upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s. CLTs are “quasipublic” landholding arrangements that remove land from the speculative market by placing it “in trust,” typically through a sponsoring nonprofit or community development corporation. The organization then sells plots of land or buildings to individuals. Should the individual decide to sell, the CLT purchases the property at a below-market price. Any profits the organization receives from value appreciation or [End Page 45] subsidies are then used to lower the cost of the home for the next qualified homebuyer. CLTs are governed by a democratically elected board of directors consisting of leaseholders, nonleaseholding community members, and representatives from supportive private or public institutions. This diverse group of people ensures that the land trusts garner broad community support and that the land remains permanently off the market. In the 1970s, one of the key visionaries of CLTs, Robert Swann, maintained that a diverse board could help ensure a trust’s longevity by preventing a single person or group of people from privatizing the land. If the trust involved the surrounding community, thus engendering local support, it had a greater chance of success.3
Less clear at the time was how CLT advocates defined “community.” Swann later articulated it as meaning “geographical region or bioregion.”4 But in the early 1970s, according to CLT movement chronicler John Emmeus Davis, Swann remained open to any variety of experiments that worked toward “reforming the relationship between people and land,”5 including so-called “user” trusts or “enclaves.”6 Leaseholders, or a single organization, managed these trusts, which held land under common ownership but may or may not have emphasized “ownership for the common good.”7 The distinguishing factor between user trusts and CLTs that emerged over the course of the decade hinged on land reform and, more specifically, providing the landless poor with access to land. Given each strain’s shared roots in American pacifism, however, distinctions were not initially so clear-cut. As the idea spread throughout the counterculture, organizers debated the meaning and function of community land trusts. Two competing impulses, one toward personal autonomy and the other toward community, shaped the debates. This is why, Davis notes, the second comprehensive work to chronicle emerging CLTs, The Community Land Trust Handbook (1982), emphasized “reforming the relationship between individual and community.” Indeed, as this essay argues, throughout the 1970s CLT leaders wrestled with competing ideas of what constituted “community” and who, exactly, CLTs were meant to serve.8
This essay chronicles the development of an early user trust, called Peacemaker Land Trust, that a group of pacifists formed in West Virginia in the early 1970s. User...