Tax law is not, as a general rule, an inspiring subject. For the good folks of Fairhope, Alabama, however, it’s nothing less than the reason for their existence. Founded in 1894, the city is an ideological anomaly: an unlikely success based on an unpopular idea taken root in an unfavorable environment. But however improbable, their story, like all great success stories, is surely an interesting one.
The idea of Fairhope was born a long ways from the plot of land that would become it, almost a thousand miles away, in the city of Des Moines, Iowa. Here, a group of people had been drawn together under their belief in a radical concept called Georgism, which, among other things, theorized that all other taxes could be done away with in lieu of a single land tax. The premise was first drawn up by a man named Henry George, who believed that since land was a gift from God, it wasn’t right for man to assume to own it or profit from it. He proposed a Single Tax, a tax that equaled 100% of the rental value of a piece of land, and one that would eliminate the need for all other taxes.
The success of George’s model was based on its implementation on a national scale, but—not surprisingly—the idea met with passionate resistance from railroads, mining companies, and developers, whose profits largely depended on ownership of vast tracts of land. Though this severely limited the scope of George’s influence, his ideas took root in dedicated pockets around the country, especially in a little cluster of visionaries in Des Moines. This band of disciples—twenty-eight, to be exact—took George’s theories and adapted them to operate on a smaller scale, then sought out a parcel of land upon which to give them a try. After scouring the South and Midwest, they landed upon a sandy bluff overlooking the Mobile Bay, one which—they forecasted—offered the utopian project a “fair hope” of success.
Under the auspices of the Fairhope Industrial Association (changed in 1904 to the Fair Hope Single Tax Corporation), the nation’s first Single Tax Colonists carved a bustling town out of a pine forest and a dirt road. Rather than sell plots of land to prospectors, the FIA retained ownership of all property, and rented parcels of land to its citizens for use. Anything that the renters built on the property was theirs to buy and sell (and renewable leases were granted for 99 years), but the land itself remained the property of Fairhope. The revenue generated by the rental covered city, county, and local taxes, as well as the cost of running the FIA, and anything left over was given back to the community in the form of parks, libraries, museums, and other public amenities.
Though time has necessitated a shift in some of the original tenets laid out by the FIA, the city of Fairhope still operates as one of the only two single tax colonies in the United States. The Fairhope Single Tax Corporation still owns 20% of the city of Fairhope, including the vibrant downtown and some 40,000 acres surrounding it. The city’s avant garde attitude has long attracted a cast of interesting characters—artists, writers, and eccentrics of all ilks—and they have helped shape the community into an eclectic reflection worthy of its genesis story.
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