written for Connecticut Woodlands
They Own Land, a House, and a Slow Pace of Life—
A socio-economic phenomenon that drives the economy
Many of the people who live in Connecticut don’t live here all the time. The second-home market in Litchfield County, most notably, has established a rhythm of life that drives the economy and the local government. Until recently, few statistics about this trend existed. Last year, a newspaper reporter asked the assessor in Salisbury, Barbara Bigos, how many of the property owners live in town part-time. Mrs. Bigos said that she hears this question all of the time but has no definite statistics to answer it. So she told the reporter that she could go through the Grand List and calculate the proportion of those with out-of-town mailing addresses.
“Which she did, and she came up with 25 percent,” Mrs. Bigos said. “The problem is there are all sorts of New Yorkers who have caretakers here. We seem to think it’s way more than half [of the population]. Almost every new purchase that comes through is a New Yorker, especially since September 11. My gut feeling is 75 percent. There’s no definitive way to know that, except for all the transfers that come through.”
Mrs. Bigos said it is likely that Salisbury has become “an escape plan” for city dwellers. “They just want a place to come to.”
“If I say that’s a bunch of them, numerically, what does that mean?” asked Harold Ducey, the Litchfield assessor, who would not try to estimate how many part-timers live in his town. “That’s about all I could say. They’re here and there and everywhere.”
It’s not hard to imagine why. Most of Litchfield County is beautiful, and the region is only a few hours’ drive from New York City, Westchester County, and Fairfield County. Salisbury, near the borders of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York, is the outpost, the last stop on the train, with a population of 4,000 (winter) or 7,000 (summer). When city professionals and entertainers step off that train, they step into privacy. “We leave the movie stars and people alone,” Mrs. Bigos said. “I mean really. They’re just left alone here. And the taxes are very low.”
The Northwest Corner’s economy today is based on real estate and the support of those who buy it. Three hundred years ago, this was an industrial center of the Colonial charcoal and iron industries. The transition from industrial to pastoral landscape unfolded gradually, as farms and charcoal-related logging ceased to operate. These were not replaced with other commercial enterprises. The subsistence farms of years past have become either preserved open space or houses.
Residents have worked through land trusts and town committees to save the pastoral views as open space, and there are reasons to fear that the landscape won’t remain rural unless people fight for it. Most of Litchfield County and an area to the east – a total of 28 rural towns – have become a part of a project to protect land and the quiet life. The Highlands Coalition, 100 conservation groups in four states, supported a new federal law that secures $100 million toward buying land to prevent private development.
The Highlands Coalition says in its literature that development in this region has sped up and that it’s vital to get the government’s help to stop it. “Development in the Litchfield Hills is occurring at twice the rate of the region’s population growth,” a coalition report says. “Towns just to the south and east of us are losing 5,000-8,000 acres of land a year to subdivisions and big-box retail. The U.S. Forest Service predicts that we have 10 to 20 years before the rural character of the Litchfield Hills is irreparably damaged.”
Second-Home Ownership Rising
Second homes are popular across the United States, although the reasons for buying them tip toward making investments rather than owning weekend or vacation retreats. Nationally, purchases of second homes have increased since 2003. In March 2005, the National Association of Realtors announced the results of two new surveys that showed second home ownership is a growing trend. One survey found that sales in 2004 reached more than 2.82 million, an increase of more than 16 percent over the previous year. More of these houses – 1.8 million – are believed to be investment properties than weekend or vacation houses—1 million—according to the NAR. But vacation home sale numbers increased almost 19 percent while investment numbers increased 14 percent.
A second survey the NAR conducted showed that the typical vacation-home buyer is 55 years old and earned $71,000 in 2003, while investment-property buyers had a median age of 47 and earned $85,700. The NAR also reported that one out of five second homes will become the primary home after the owners retire.
Realtor Stephen Drezen, managing partner of Portfolio Properties Group LLP, with offices in Washington Depot and New York City, said his best barometer of the weekend and seasonal community is the population of a private lake community of which he was a partner for many years. When the first 28 houses went up on Woodridge Lake three decades ago, all of them were second homes. For the next 10 years, about 80 percent of the Woodridge Lake houses remained weekend and vacation homes. In recent years, he said, more people have made the lake community their year-round base. They have moved there from more congested areas like Fairfield County, and they can work from home several days a week. He also has met many couples who set off in opposite directions in the morning, one to Massachusetts and the other to Hartford or New York. Nevertheless, Mr. Drezen said, the weekend and vacation homeowners still dominate the private lake community. Of 776 home sites today, 53 percent of them are vacant much of the year.
Mr. Drezen agreed with the Salisbury assessor’s guess that September 11 pushed people to buy country property. He said it took a year and a half after the collapse of the World Trade Center for this trend to begin. “We thought there was going to be an immediate rush to buy country homes, and there wasn’t. It took until mid 2003.” The rush continued through mid-2004, which he said was that region’s peak of house purchases.
The second-home residents are younger than they used to be, Mr. Drezen said. “That started happening 12, maybe 13 years ago, probably after the crash.” (He referred to the 1987 stock market crash, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 508 points in one day.) “A lot of younger people landed up coming to the Northwest Corner, both as an investment and a lifestyle change. … Who is the buyer now? The buyer is somebody from lower Connecticut, or from Wall Street, doctors—a lot of doctors—usually in the financial world, and they have the ability to purchase a second home and a third home.”
Major Employers: Private Schools
The economy appears to be mostly based on residential real estate – not white-collar business, farming, or tourism. “I do not think there is enough tourism to maintain these towns,” Mr. Drezen said. “You can count the number of bed and breakfast inns in the Northwest Corner on two hands. Most of these small towns, like Cornwall, are sort of hidden away. There is really no reason to go there unless you are a history buff.”
Retired farmer Norman Sills of Salisbury came to town 50 years ago, said that almost no one farms today. “When I first came to Salisbury there were (about) 50 active dairy farms,” he said. “Now there are only two or three and only 20 cows. They’re just doing it as a hobby.”
Mr. Drezen said that farms in Salisbury were sold off, some for houses and some protected as open space through state grants or private land trusts. In Goshen, 30 years ago, there were about 15 farms, but today, “if there’s one, that’s a lot.” Salisbury’s largest employers are private schools, said former First Selectman Val Bernardoni. These include the Hotchkiss School, the Salisbury School, and Indian Mountain School in Salisbury. Private schools in nearby towns include the Kent School, Marvelwood School, and South Kent School in Kent, the Gunnery in Washington, and others.
In a place this quiet and pastoral, the quality of life appears to be very good, and the part-time residents appreciate it so much that they get involved in their communities—giving lectures, serving on boards, and joining land trusts. “The part-timers can be looked at as one of the very, very excellent deals the town has,” said Mr. Bernardoni. “They are very, very good citizens. They use very little of the town’s resources.” He said they are involved and well educated and that the volunteer organizations in town are strong. The ambulance corps members, who tend to be full-time residents, raise their funds independently and ask only that the town waive the fees for beach and dump passes. The volunteer fire department receives only a portion of its income from taxes, he added. And when town meetings come up on the calendar, people find ways to get to town for them. Sometimes they hold the meetings on Fridays, but, “We have found that when the topic is of interest, they’ll come, no matter when it is. … An awful lot of people we have on various committees and commissions say, ‘I’m here on a Monday night but not here during the week.’”
Mr. Bernardoni, the former school superintendent, said he can’t even remember the names of many of the actors who live in town. “There’s a pile of them,” he said. One of them is Meryl Streep, whom he often sees at the store. He does not act like a groupie. “I just pass her and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’”
Connecticut Housing Statistics
Median Value of Owner-Occupied Houses:
$236,559 (7th in the United States)
Median Household Income:
$60,551 (4th in the U.S.)
Median Monthly Housing Costs for Owner-occupied Houses With a Mortgage:
(6th in the U.S.)
About This Article
I am the editor of Connecticut Woodlands, where this article first appeared in Winter 2006; I also write features for it several times a year. Woodlands is published by the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, http://www.ctwoodlands.org.