What is the ideal parcel size? This is a question we ask ourselves frequently, particularly out here in Nevada County where large ranches are continually being subdivided for suburban émigrés. At their worst, these “rurban” subdivisions can inflict the same sprawling suburban impacts onto the rural landscape, only writ much, much larger. Increased traffic, habitats disturbed and diminished, fences blocking what once were trails – and like the proverbial Humpty Dumpty, once the landscape is broken it can rarely be put back together again. Is there a way to change our ownership patterns, to make more room and energize our fallow rural areas with a new generation of settlers, in a way that does not diminish and erode the values they are returning back to the land to discover?

My wife and I, many decades ago, moved to a five acre parcel on a lovely ranch next to her parents that had been recently subdivided. We were grateful to find property close to the land where she’d grown up, and the parcel was beautiful, with views of the hills to the north, and grassy meadows where we could envision orchards.  But as our neighborhood grew up around us we could see the flip side of five-acre zoning.  We could see the houses on either side of us, and we could hear their dogs barking at sunrise.  Split rail and mesh fencing sprang up along property lines, confining us to the asphalt road for our morning walks.  Houses, sheds and storage structures are scattered across the landscape.  Although the deer and turkey are more plentiful than ever, the cries of the coyotes at night have grown ever more distant.

It has occurred to me that our five acre parcel, much as we still love it, may represent the worst of both worlds – too big to mow, too small to plow, as one old farmer said to me.  The resources that drew us to this part of the country have become fragmented, and the impacts of our habitation have been spread carelessly across the landscape.

Perhaps better CC&R’s in our neighborhood could have helped, by confining development to two-acre building envelopes, leaving the remainder as open space and pasturage, and by providing deep setbacks for fencing and building.  Community trails throughout the subdivision could have provided us with walking opportunities and preserved some experience of what the old ranch was like.  Perhaps a bit of commonly owned open space might have provided the opportunity for some of us to work together on a community garden, rather than laboring so inefficiently on our own small plots, or to share stables for our horses.

But a better idea, I think, would have been to shrink those parcels down to a much smaller size, perhaps one-and-a-half or two acres, which would be more than enough room for all of our houses, and barns, and out-buildings, so that the larger portion of the old ranch might have been conserved as open space, where it would serve as a big back yard we could all share, for our children to explore, and for all of us to hike or ride our horses, or garden, or simply gaze out over.  This sort of clustering of development is the best of all worlds, I think, with resources kept intact and shared (for an example of what I mean, go here.)

Where clustering does not work, perhaps we would be better off sticking to twenty-acre zoning, where homes can be tucked away into the landscape and ample space can be conserved for livestock as well as wildlife.  Building envelopes and fencing setbacks could still help maintain the visual integrity of the land, and community trails would allow us the ability to access and appreciate the larger landscape.

And as much as I love our five acre “Ranchette”, I have to conclude that it is an inefficient, even wasteful, subdivision of land the foothills can no longer afford.  “Too big to mow, too small to plow”, indeed.  How can we put Humpty Dumpty back together again?