Winter is upon us, and with it, America’s snowy seasonal towns are swollen with skiers, snowmobile riders and others looking to take a weekend away from the suburbs and cities. These towns come alive as year-round residents capitalize on the influx of fresh faces and fresh dollars, only to fall back to sleep when temperatures rise.

This ebb and flow of people creates special governance challenges for the locals who, during the offseason, must maintain the properties and institutions that become important for a few months each year. Getting the rules right can, with luck, sustain long-term prosperity in a small seasonal town, while excessive land-use regulation and infrastructure mismanagement are a great way to destroy a place’s competitiveness in the quest for scarce tourist dollars.

Keeping a small seasonal town afloat and competitive is a joint effort between local public officials, employees and those involved in running the town’s private and public-private civic infrastructure. Being able to handle thousands more people during the on-season than the offseason means extra infrastructure and governance capacity that is used only part of the year.

This governance isn’t free, and “public services” in small towns can encompass a very different bundle of products with very different inputs than those of other places, which have more resources and operate under the public expectations of having tax-funded government employees do the work. Volunteers staff the fire stations and ambulances, doing risky and often traumatizing work for a modest per diem. And institutionalized coproduction of infrastructure — like open-access private roads and privately-provided water management — does for the community what governments can’t do with tax dollars alone.

Year-round residents shoulder much of the responsibility for this work, contributing time rather than tax dollars to providing the local public services. Out-of-town landowners pay their share in cash, with property tax rebates for homesteads putting somewhat more of the local tax burden on those less likely to contribute to day-to-day municipal decision-making. This coproduction of governance — with taxes from and property values supported by high-season tourism combining with contributions of labor during slow times to provide the municipal infrastructure — keeps the towns from shrinking and the tourists from taking their vacations somewhere else.

Coproduction works, as some places operating under this model are doing well. But governing places that serve many non- and part-time residents can come with political pitfalls that threaten the viability of the entire seasonal-town enterprise.

Any place where the economy relies on spending by part-time residents carries a threat of an insider-versus-outsider dynamic developing that can cause the town to adopt policies that limit new housing, businesses, and services expected to target part-time residents. Town decision-making bodies can offer fertile ground for garden-variety NIMBYism. High minimum-lot sizes prevent subdivision and development of mountain land and scenic coastlines. Lot occupancy rules target groups of unruly college students and large families of modest means alike. Bans on using farms as wedding venues and other home-based business regulations target the problem of extra traffic with a blunt policy hammer.

Zoning is the main, but not the only, tool at the disposal of local officials bent on targeting outsiders. New vacation homes need infrastructure, which has its own set of political levers to act on. Short of banning new construction, the town can make building uneconomical. This can mean mandating particular construction practices or materials. It can also mean setting materials mandates for the homes themselves, although some states, like Texas, have moved to ban this practice.

The challenge for reform-minded small-town politicians is real, but not unsurmountable. Much of the overregulating has already happened in areas whose tourist appeal peaked decades ago. For more up-and-coming locales, the challenge presents an opportunity for commonsense land-use reform rather than the need to be on the defensive against laws that could drown any seasonal appeal remaining today. Selling a positive vision of zoning and infrastructure reform that returns property rights to locals and reduces the cost of living is a risk, but for some, the risks of stagnation and decline may be even greater.

Image credit:  Sean Pavone

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