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for people who care about the West

Behind the gate

A look into the fortified rural retreats of the West's moneyed elite

 

Note: Two sidebar articles accompanied this story: "It's more than a house, it's a fantasy life" and "Gated communities go in with a bang."

The exclusive Fleur de Lis development in Reno, Nev., offers townhomes equipped with lightning-quick Internet access, closed-circuit video monitoring of the kids' playground, and refrigerator bar-code scanners on which residents can order groceries - all in a gated community marketed for its resemblance to "charming Alpine villages of the French Alps."

In Utah, the 900-acre Glenwild residential development, billed as "Park City's premier gated and private mountain community," offers not only golf and snowmobiling, but also aromatherapy and bobsledding. If you're short on cash, the developer recommends a mortgage company that will loan you up to $5 million to buy in.

On the more affordable end, Florentine Estates in Florence, Ore., on 180 wooded acres near the Suislaw River and ocean beaches, offers lots as cheap as $31,000 - "the ultimate manufactured home community on the Oregon coast ... where you can feel the seclusion of a gated community."

Even in the crowded civilization of metro Phoenix, as many as one of every eight people now lives in some form of gated community, according to a recent study.

It's a trend. Twenty years ago, if you ruled out urban high-rises, almost no one in the United States lived in a gated and guarded community. Today, it's hard to pin down an exact total, with so much emphasis on privacy, but experts estimate the U.S. has somewhere between 3,000 and 25,000 gated and guarded communities, and more appear every day.

In this issue, High Country News takes you inside one of the most prominent gated developments closing off pieces of Montana's countryside. We also look at the impacts several developments have on the land and on local communities. And we show how the salesmen operate.

A look into the fortified rural retreats of the West's moneyed elite

Hamilton, Mont. - It's a beautiful day at the Stock Farm. A bright, cloudless sky sends a gentle breeze over the 16th tee. Just down the slope, a family of four mounts their quarter horses for a trail ride to the Elk Viewing Gazebo. Over in the Clubhouse, a woman prepares for her workout on the orbital jogger, and a tan man orders the house lunch specialty: chicken frangelico. It is no doubt the best food in town, but you'll never get to taste it.

For those who can shell out the million-dollar minimum, the Stock Farm offers 95 homesites and 30 cabin lots meticulously arrayed on 2,600 acres, all enclosed by a perimeter fence and gate. The club membership initiation fee alone runs $125,000; raw building sites run as high as $1.2 million; and the cheapest ready-for-move-in residence, a two-bedroom cabin, sells for roughly $800,000.

Money isn't what it's all about, though. In the last few years, half a dozen high-end, gated "shared ranch developments" have begun selling lots along Montana's pristine trout streams and mountain slopes. They attract buyers from out of state by marketing a combination of expansive ranch living, a homogeneous social scene, and convenient property and recreation management. Those who arrive inside the gates are served up a comfortable predictability in their leisure pursuits, all dressed up in tasteful Westernalia. The Stock Farm is where Frontier House meets Sun City.

Outside the gates, it's Western too, but heavily dosed with the realities of early 21st century land use. The farms and working ranches of the Bitterroot Valley roll from its namesake river up to high mountain ranges that shelter wilderness and at least one wandering grizzly bear. An unplanned chaos of ranchettes and rural subdivisions is taking over much of the lowland. Small-town Hamilton, founded on logging and farming, is now sprouting art galleries, a bistro and boxed retail serving a population of nearly 5,000. The scene doesn't look like anyone is in charge.

The presence of a gate for humans in the middle of range country poses the obvious question: Why? Who lives "inside" and who lives "outside," and why underline the demarcation in such an in-your-face way? How does it feel to be on either side of the divide? Since all boundaries are political, this one - an anomaly but also a harbinger - seems worth checking out.

"Almost like a homestead village"

From the eastern edge of town, the Stock Farm slopes gently uphill. A hundred years ago, the land was part of a gigantic horse-breeding ranch owned by copper baron Marcus Daly. One of the horse ranch's legacies, a straight, cottonwood-lined road, leads up to a new stone-pillared electronic gate that is the back door to the Stock Farm. This gate is closed every night, operated by a keypad that requires an access code. During the day a sign is eminently readable: MEMBERS AND GUESTS ONLY. A ranch manager's house serves as sentry.

Bob Arrigoni, a San Francisco architect who helped draw the Stock Farm's elaborate master plan, meets me just inside the gate, near the well-appointed 48-stall equestrian center and the Stock Farm's fly-fishing shop. Bob also designed Robert Redford's Sundance resort on a Utah mountain and Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas' movie-making complex in the oak hills north of San Francisco.

In his 60s, jovial and gracefully balding, Bob has come to the Stock Farm with his wife, Diane, for a two-week stay in what he disarmingly calls their "so-called cabin."

While she practices casting in a pond, he drives me around in a new SUV. The movie-industry connection makes sense as he explains the Stock Farm's high-concept layout. As the property rises, different "neighborhoods" determine house styles. Both the houses and the habitats are supposed to look traditional, but both have been carefully tinkered with.
First we come to the irrigated pasture of the treeless flats, land of the "ranch houses." These residences must conform to strict design guidelines. They must have, for example, a wraparound porch, a muted-tone composite roof, and a white exterior. Each must include a compound of three buildings, since, as Bob explains, outbuildings are traditional for ranches.

"We want to reflect the historical feel; otherwise, it just doesn't read right," says Bob, who also serves on the design-review committee.

But then we drive by a glistening steamship-sized job with copper cupolas. At first, I think it must be the clubhouse, but it's just Lot 15 and a 21,000-square-foot house. Built by a Chicago developer, it sheaths an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a 75-foot-long tunnel for target practice, a room-sized, hammered-copper-topped, horseshoe-shaped bar, a home theater and a multi-car garage dressed up as a barn.

It doesn't "read" quite like the frontier, and Bob knows it. "Some of these things down here," he says, waving an arm across the flats, "the design committee is less than happy about."

Bob is eager to head uphill, toward the Nick Fazio-designed golf course and the "mountain homes" that surround it. The mountain homes vary from large to very, very large. Styled like historic national-park lodges, they must be built of hand-hewn logs perched on granite foundations, and they feature big chimneys, log tresses and oversized entry porticos.

Onward, east of the pool and tennis courts, we come to the cabins. Clustered tightly together - "almost like a homestead village," says Bob - the cabins range from 2,000 to 4,500 square feet, with as many as six bedrooms.

We stop at Bob's cabin. Like much of the Stock Farm architecture, it is very masculine, with massive logs and dark wallpaper and enormous leather-and-tapestry furniture, designed to make one feel both very small and very big at the same time. Lampshades, predictably, are covered in bark, while the side tables are draped in cowhide that looks more Vermont Holstein than Montana Angus.

All the cabins' interiors materialized effortlessly, installed by the same designer who did the husky furnishings of the Clubhouse, all for a consistent feel. "The place is a little dark," Bob frowns. "I'm going to add a glass door and put in another window or two." If it doesn't feel personal (there are no family photos or bawdy light-switch covers), it's not supposed to. During busy times, most cabins are managed by the Stock Farm as rentals when the owners are gone. Near the kitchen, there's a standard hotel phone and next to it, a listing of guest services.

A ghost ranch

Like Bob Arrigoni, most Stock Farmers hail from far-off urban areas. Most are corporate executives who are "outdoors-oriented," says managing partner Jim Schueler. "This is for a person with a very busy, busy lifestyle and he doesn't want to manage a ranch but wants to be a part of it. Everything is taken care of, so they just have to worry about fishing, hunting and golf."

The marketing is soft-sell, largely by word of mouth. Members tend to show up in geographical packs - a bunch from the Bay Area, other bunches from New Orleans, Texas, Minneapolis and New York.

It's tough to get a handle on the people here, though, because not many are around. So far, about three-fourths of the Stock Farm lots have sold and about one-third have been built upon. But as with Montana's other new gated ranch developments, to call the Stock Farm "residential" would be a misnomer. Only two or three homeowners live here full time. Most just come a few times in the winter and during the relatively short summer golfing season.

In early spring, when the neighboring meadows bustle with calving season and muddy school buses, the Stock Farm is eerily silent. Much of the time, it is a ghost ranch.

Whether or not they are present, Stock Farmers obviously relish a common governing principle: order. Tight control is evident everywhere, from strict codes and regulations to the sense of enclosure with several gated entrances. Unlike most Montanans, who would find it Orwellian, homeowners here are willing to be told what to put in their front yards. They're willing to be told they can't trim dead tree branches or park their vehicles anywhere they want. To do otherwise would be to risk the uncertainties of the unplanned real West. As one buyer puts it, "We looked at properties outside the development, but you never know if next door is going to look like an airplane wreck."

The rules also preserve adherence to a meticulously constructed frontier mythology. Even the maintenance sheds are disguised as quaint red barns. The smooth road asphalt has been layered with a large-aggregate gravel to resemble dirt. More than a thousand ponderosa pine trees have been planted to enhance a sense of wildness.

The development's version of Frontierland subscribes to the triumphalist narrative of Western settlement. Tom Thomas, a semi-retired Californian who's building an 8,000-square-foot ranch compound, explains the rather involved fiction driving the look of his place: "The philosophy is that there was a carriage house there from 150 years ago and a family farmhouse, and the new generation has some money and builds a bigger house next to it. ... The buildings are made to look old."

Only three architects are approved to serve the customers here, and primarily one construction company and one custom log company carry out the designs. One of the anointed architects, Missoula-based Jeremy Oury, specializes in log design. "We're good at replicating authentic details in a modern context," says Oury. To get the appearance of a 100-year-old building, he designs a roof that looks thin and delicate but disguises thick insulation. To make the "homestead" cabins look much smaller than they really are, he builds numerous boxy rooms, each appended with a separate roof line.

The design reviewers, the homeowners' association and the stringent club membership committee control what kind of flowers their neighbors can plant, where those neighbors must put their trash cans and - even through the approval process - who those neighbors will be.

"A whole other life"

It is possible to land your jet at the Hamilton airport and vacation at the Stock Farm for a lifetime, and never set foot on the town's Main Street two miles away. Many Stock Farmers don't shop in the local grocery store, preferring to eat at the club or to have their groceries picked up and delivered by the club's Member Services. As a general rule, they don't participate in the local weed association, school district or county commission meetings that make up the social hum of rural life.

The presence of the gates further disconnects these newcomers and creates a certain amount of resentment.

"It's an affront and a symbol of an attitude that doesn't square with who we are as citizens of this state," says Frederick Skinner, a history professor who drives by the Stock Farm gates twice a day as he commutes to the University of Montana in Missoula, 50 miles north. Skinner adds, "The resentment I feel is part of a larger bag of resentments I haul around about the increasing privatization of the West."

Aspects of the Stock Farm reach back into history. Americans have long balkanized into distinct self-styled communities, from immigrant ghettos to utopian farms. Many of Montana's pioneer ranch empires were financed with British and other foreign capital. Wealthy aristocrats from the East have long been sending their scions to frolic with the cows. But gentleman ranchers in the past tended to mix it up with the locals out of necessity and good will. Sometimes they even became Montana's politicians.

Today's pattern of land ownership represents a significant social upheaval. Of all land sales over 1,000 acres in western Montana last year, 80 percent went to nonresidents, according to one of Montana's leading ranch appraisers. There are now so many well-heeled strangers that they have the mass to form their very own towns, bound by their own codes and regulations and their own self-government.

The Stock Farm "fits into the more general process in the nation of increasing separation by race and class," says University of Montana sociologist Paul Miller. "Those who can purchase their separation increasingly do.

"In my view, it's not a healthy thing for a community to have a gated, defensive structure, and it goes against the concept of a sustainable community, in which people share spaces and a common identity and are attuned to the needs of each other," Miller says. "I don't know who they're afraid of out there, but for those outside the gates, it makes you wonder what's wrong with you that you might be scary to others."

Bob Arrigoni says the much-ballyhooed front gate is merely symbolic, "to signify you've entered a special place." Managing partner Schueler, however, says his buyers expect it. "It comes with the turf," he says. "People from California or Detroit want that sense of security." The most visible Stock Farm gate, on a main highway, is closed 24 hours a day to all those who don't have the access code.

Many of the codeless locals struggle to survive on the low end of the economic hierarchy. Hamilton is the seat of Ravalli County, which has Montana's lowest annual wage. The county's poverty rate is a relatively high 16 percent. The Stock Farm's initiation fee alone is more than five times the average yearly paycheck.

The sense of division is acute. Generally, "The new folks who come into these rural areas tend to be new to their money and still amassing it. They have little time or interest in getting to know who their neighbors are," says John McIlwain, senior researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, which tracks land-use trends. The perception, and sometimes the reality, is that exclusive enclaves limit access to public resources, whether by closing a road or gate previously open, by restricting use of streams and trailheads, or by otherwise abusing the public trust.

Despite the fact that Stock Farmers take pains to conceal the houses and golf course from town and to leave a swath of the property undeveloped in an elk-habitat easement, everyone in town knows about the development and how much it costs.

C.J. Sherwood, an earnest 19-year-old who tends bar at the Spice of Life in downtown Hamilton, puts it succinctly: "They have money and we don't. They walk in and you know right away they're from the Stock Farm. They expect the world to wait on them right now, and it's all about them. It's like a whole other life."

Attempts to connect

The Stock Farm does benefit the local community. In addition to increased property taxes, the club pays about a hundred employees, mostly to tend the golf course and serve food and beverages. The club also trains local teens to work as caddies during golf season, and the caddies get to play the course two times each season.

The club is an enormous boon to local contractors, construction workers and artisans. Handmade hinges, railings, stone fireplaces, carved stair treads, rough iron chandeliers and the peeled logs originate locally. One house here will keep a specialist in cabinet knobs busy for months.

And the club shares some of its wealth, by donating to local causes. Since the Stock Farm began three years ago, its management and members have donated more than $140,000 to organizations, including the local YMCA, Special Olympics, 4-H, the library, museums, volunteer fire departments, and local schools, says Matt Guzik, Stock Farm general manager. As a mechanism for the donations, the club recently launched the Greater Ravalli Foundation, specifically to benefit local school-age kids.

"I've worked at other gated communities that were more private, that just shut down the barriers, that didn't get involved in local communities, even fought local communities. We're extremely unique in that way," Guzik says. But even he acknowledges the psychology: "Some people are going to be against a community like this, just because ..."

Perhaps since local needs are so great, the donations seem thinly spread, says Cheryl Kikkert, the director of Healthy Families, a nonprofit coalition of 30 different agencies and groups. "From my own point of view, we don't know (the Stock Farmers) are here. My sense is nobody knows who lives there and that's the way they want it to be."

Some of that separation comes from the locals' own hesitation to approach the Stock Farmers. "I would love to open the golden spigot up there, but we haven't figured how to do it," says Stacey Umhey of Safe, an organization which runs a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. She adds, "Like today, we're getting ready for our annual auction, and I'm in jeans and sweaty. I can't imagine sitting down to lunch with Charles Schwab (the California investment magnate who is one of the Stock Farm partners) and asking for money."

During weekend golf tournaments, Stock Farmers make a show of force, as the airspace above town teems with private planes and helicopters, and more Stock Farmers venture into town. "You can spot little coveys of the aristocracy when they decide to go slumming it downtown in tight little packs like foreign tourists," says Larry Campbell, a Hamiltonian and director of a local environmental group with about 750 members, the Friends of the Bitterroot.

"A number of local people are on the construction gravy train up there, but there's a negative side, too," Campbell says. Stock Farmers "are the driving force behind persistent pressure to expand the Hamilton airport, which is very unpopular here."

The airport runway is too short for easy use by most private jets. That's fine with most locals, who complain of aircraft noise and jet fuel odor. They can use the regional airport in Missoula. But for Stock Farmers, using the Missoula airport means less time on the back nine.

"It's fine to have a gated community," says town resident Gwen Haas, a vocal opponent of expanding the Hamilton airport, "but don't come in and say we're going to change the ambiance of the valley for our convenience so we can land closer. Someone should tell them that people live on the ground and that rattling our dishes is not very neighborly."

The elusive simple life

A few Stock Farmers are trying to put down roots in the community. In the Clubhouse, I slump into a fat club chair and chat with a member who's in financial services. Tousled, tan and happy, he's just come off the golf course in preparation for an amateur tournament. He is one of the few who intend to live here full time. At 40 and retired - he sold his business at the top of the market - he's also younger than most. With two kids and one on the way, he says his family will use local public schools and fully integrate into Hamilton.

"We have a lot of friends in the community," he says, "and the (local) kids are the nicest of anywhere I've seen." At the end of the day, his kids can come home and be safe, jump on a horse or ride around in a golf cart.

In its pursuit of perfection, the Stock Farm is not unlike that other happiest place on earth, Disneyland. The Stock Farm is a themed world, too, but not so easy to pin down. The theme is the West, yes, but not the Jeffersonian West of small yeomen farmers laboring toward an egalitarian democracy. Nor is it Turner's West of back-breaking labor to civilize the wilderness and form the American can-do character. But of course, those Wests never really existed, either, or not for long.

What appeals most to the Stock Farmers is the notion they can find here exactly what they lack: a simple life. That is precisely what all those design elements work so hard to convey. The Stock Farm embodies all the contradictions of the modern American West with none of the discomforts; those float downhill beyond the gates.

"We are a lot of simple, low-key people," Bob Arrigoni says as he ferries me across the golf cart path. "We want to be treated like everyone else."


Florence Williams, a former High Country News staff reporter, lives in Helena, Montana.