Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Public Space

Living in public space makes you appreciate how civilization works.

Traveling by RV, you are dependent on public space, for a place to park as well as simply a place to sit and enjoy the world.  And in any society, public space serves this need.  Increasingly, however, public space is under attack - being sold off to private interests, or viewed as an unnecessary expense on already over-extended local budgets.

But well-maintained public parks and other public spaces are a joy, and really an indicia of how well a civilization is working.  Finding an idyllic park or other spot, just to pause even for a moment or two, is a real joy.  And while your taxes may pay for it, you don't have to pay taxes on it.  Moreover, you can enjoy a space that would be all but impossible for the average person to own.

For example, at Mistletoe State Park, in Georgia, we enjoyed what I call the $20 Million Dollar view.  We parked our RV on a remote site and had a view of the lake and the far shore, uninterrupted by any houses, camps, other people or, well, anything.   In order to own such a view, you would have to pay at least $20 million to own your own lake and the surrounding lands.  But for about $20 a night, you can enjoy it for a lot less.

Increasingly, however, if you want the view, you have to buy the view.  We live in a State Park - Jekyll Island - and few of the homes there "own the view."  The view of the ocean and the marsh are open to everyone, and by State Law, 2/3 of the island is protected from development.   Contrast this with nearby St. Simons Island, where if you want a view, you have to pay a couple of million to get one.  And if you drive on that island, you may not realize you are on an island, as you cannot see the ocean other than at a few isolated public access sites.

And in such spots, even if you "buy the view", chances are, it is a view marred by the presence of so many others like yourself, who wanted to buy a "slice 'o paradise" and thus crowd in with you to get a shot of that fabulous sunset that you watch once a year (but pull the shades on the rest of the time as it overheats the house and reflects off the TeeVee, making it hard to watch).

Public space, on the other hand, is often far superior and, well, paid for.  No $15,000 tax bills will arrive in the mail if you have a picnic on public lands.  And yet, few take advantage of them.  On the Blue Ridge Parkway, we are often the only ones in Picnic areas or camping sites.  We see few, if any people, on the hiking trails.   Folks would rather stay at home and watch television.

Our own island was recently remodeled with beautiful public spaces, including a new picnic park with multiple pavilions with barbecue grills and picnic tables.  It is all nicely done, but when you ask a local resident about it, they feign indifference.  "Oh, I hear it is nice," they say, but of course one doesn't actually go to such places.  They are for other people, who don't own their own picnic table in their backyard (which of course is never used, as who wants to picnic in their back yard?  Besides, America's Idol is on).

As you might guess, we use it all the time.  In fact, pavilion 4 is sort of our own, as it is out of the way and has a nice breeze from the ocean.  It takes little time to pack a picnic dinner and a bottle of wine.  And we keep all the other necessities in the car.  Public space - you paid for it, why not use it?

In the Adirondacks, public space is everywhere - there seems to be a boat launch, public park or hiking trail around every bend.  But other places, such as Long Lake, seem to be "bought up" - at least in parts - with wall-to-wall camps and vacation houses, lining the lake.  The effect is less than ideal.  Not only is it ugly and tacky, you can't even pull your kayak ashore without confronting a "No Trespassing" sign.  I've got mine, jack, you get yours! - that seems to be the order of the day in the places like that.

But after paying staggering property tax bills on trying to "own the view" I am finding that public space is a far more enticing alternative.   It is free, freely available, and you have already paid for it with your tax dollars.  And since most folks today would rather stay home and watch television, it is largely unpopulated and vacant.  You can be lord of a thousand acres, of only for an hour or two, for free, or the low price of a park admission.

Sounds like a good deal to me.  In fact, it is the greatest bargain around.