5 Dark Secrets America's Small Towns Don't Want You To Know

Small towns can be big trouble.
5 Dark Secrets America's Small Towns Don't Want You To Know

Starting a town seems pretty straightforward. All you need to do is pick a plot of unclaimed land and get all the people living on it to yell, "Hey, we wanna be a city." Boom, you've got your very own township to govern however you please. Which is more than a little terrifying, considering the havoc even the smallest towns can wreak on everyone else. For example ...

Big Companies Use Tiny Cities To Skirt Regulations And Rule With An Iron Fist

In the 1960s, a group of businessmen planned to develop some largely uninhabited islands in the Florida Keys. The plan was opposed by environmentalists, who didn't feel that a bunch of shitty chain hotels were going to add much to the natural beauty of the area, but they were tragically overruled by the newfound city of Islandia's 18 residents. That's not a typo. Thanks to a group slightly larger than the number of people who saw Glitter in theaters, they got free reign to deforest a 125-mile strip of Elliott Key.

Fortunately, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had already fallen in love with the islands, and went over Islandia's head to have the area declared a federally protected national park. The remnants of the deforested strip, dubbed "Spite Highway," are currently a hiking trail. The city of Islandia hung on till 1989, when the state government shut it down on the grounds that the remaining five voters didn't live on the islands, and just held city council meetings in a Miami real estate office.

Related: 4 Of The Most Bizarre Small Towns In The World

It could have been a lot worse. You can't talk about weird Floridian corporate urban development without bringing up Disney. When Walt was planning to launch Disney World in Florida, keen to avoid government oversight, he turned to Paul Heliwell. The former CIA agent advised him to incorporate two tiny cities, which he could then populate with a few dozen loyal employees, giving him complete control over the government of Disney World. Disney duly had the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista brought into existence, noting that there would be "be no landowners, and therefore no voter control."

The "cities" still exist today. They both consist of about 50 residents, all non-union Disney employees living in trailer parks. Disney owns all property and allows a select few employees to live there, provided that they meet once a year and vote to turn over all government functions to the Reedy Creek Improvement District, whose unelected board runs the area for Disney. Failing to vote for this would result in eviction, and therefore the loss of the right to vote. It would all be kind of hilarious in a worrying sort of way if it didn't cost the state and county $50 million a year in taxes.

Companies Can Turn A Town Into A Polluted Hellscape, Screw Their Neighbors, And Keep The Profits

Vernon, California was founded in 1905 by businessman John Leonis for the sole purpose of running the most morally reprehensible businesses possible. He originally used the city as a hub for gambling, and it was later transformed into a wasteland of factories and slaughterhouses. It became the place to be if you wanted to shit a bunch of toxic fumes into the air. When a company with a long history of pollution violations tried to build a hazardous waste incinerator in the LA area in the '80s, the first two cities they considered voted unanimously against the proposal, so they went to Vernon, which immediately accepted it without even asking for an environmental report. Why bother?

Laurie Avocado/Flickr
It’s but one more layer on a delicious smog cake.

This also caused huge pollution problems in the surrounding region, but there was little they could do, because the only people who could stand living in Vernon were either on the city council or related to someone who was. Its residents, who never numbered more than 130, had no incentive to stop this cash train, no matter how much pollution it belched out. In 2015, after the city refused to shut down its notorious Exide battery recycling plant despite its neighbors' pleas, the state had finally had enough. Dealing with it cost them $176 million, and tens of thousands of people had already been exposed to shockingly high levels of lead, arsenic, and benzene. In 2011, Vernon had become such a problem for California that a group of state senators proposed wiping it off the map. Unfortunately for a lot of people, the vote failed, marking one of the few times it was a bad thing that the underdog won.

Related: 6 Of The Weirdest Tiny Towns In The United States

Powerful Businessmen Can Rake In Hundreds Of Millions In State Funding Through Shell Cities

California's City of Industry sounds like an impressive place until you realize how literal that name is. It was founded in the 1950s by tycoon James Stafford, who carefully drew its bizarre boundaries to include valuable businesses but avoid homes, because it's way easier to run a democracy when you don't have to deal with anything as unpleasant as voters. In 2015, Industry had 2,500 businesses, billions in revenue, over 50,000 workers, and a mere 200 actual citizens.

Stafford and his successors carefully maintained control of almost all residential real estate, which was rented to a handful of carefully selected voters at incredibly cheap prices. When the California legislature protested that the new city didn't have enough residents, Stafford simply snaked out a tendril and snagged a nearby mental care facility, whose long-term patients counted as residents but tended not to actively participate in elections, for some reason. With a loyal voting base, Stafford ran the "city" as his personal fiefdom. He used to write scripts for the city council meetings. We can only hope that he occasionally got bored and threw in a juicy murder or sudden ice zombie attack.

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Google Maps
They call it "The Manticore."

Why should that matter to you? Well, if you lived in California before 2011, some of your tax dollars went to state redevelopment funds. Those were set aside for city development agencies, which could use them to increase property taxes by sprucing up urban blight. Unfortunately, California makes no legal distinction between cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Industry, even though one of those has a population of 12 hand puppets and some beagles.

Starting in the '70s, Industry's redevelopment agency raked in hundreds of millions, even though the project made no sense in a city with virtually no residents. Most of the "redevelopment" involved pointless building on previously unoccupied lots. Meanwhile, Stafford's successor as mayor was paid at least $300 million for various city contracts. California eliminated redevelopment agencies in 2011, in part to deal with abuse like Industry's. So hey, maybe they're also the reason your own town still sucks!

Related: 5 Dark Sides Of America You Only See As A Small Town Doctor

Pirate Cities Can Absorb A Section Of The Highway And Shake Down Travelers

Probably the most common and lucrative (if a little less sexy) microtown hustle involves grabbing unincorporated land along a major highway and turning the whole thing into a speed trap, where the municipal police can shake down travelers from out of town. The ticket money flows back to the pirate city, which can spend it as they please, presumably on rum and 800-thread-count eye patches.

Turbeville, South Carolina (pop. 804) made over $1 million a year from its speed trap. The speed limit going into the town was 60 mph, but once you crossed the poorly marked city limits, it dropped sharply down to 45, then to 35 a few hundred feet later. But even Turbeville was subtle compared to Hampton, Florida (pop. 477). In the '90s, Hampton snapped up a thin tendril of land, giving it control of about 1,000 feet of U.S. Route 301. You can see how blatant the scheme was just by looking at a map:

Soutwest6on Ave Vollswagon Webb Dr Ln 18 Navarre Ave Ave Pin St 325 Temple St Prospect 301 Rd
They made a freaking beeline for that highway.

Hampton made $616,960 in traffic ticket money between 2010 and 2012. None of that went into improving the rundown town or providing services to its deeply impoverished residents, who were kept quiet with authorities shutting off their water when they complained. Hampton's cops lounged by the highway in lawn chairs pointing radar guns at passing cars -- that is, when they weren't driving around in new SUVs wearing full riot gear and wielding shiny new AR-15s. There were numerous complaints that they seized cars for no reason. It was as though a section of the highway had been taken over by bandits, like some medieval trade route.

State authorities fought a long battle against Hampton, which wouldn't even name most of its police officers, insisting that they were "undercover." The city was finally forced to give up the land along the highway in 2014, but plenty of others continue to operate. New Miami, Ohio (pop. 2,200) couldn't even be bothered to shake people down in person. Instead, they made $1 million per year by installing automated speed cameras that issued over 1,000 tickets a week, many of them incorrect. They had to repay the cash after losing a lawsuit in 2018. Let's all hold our breath and see if that stops the other pirate cities.

Related: 5 Real Small Towns Terrorized By Horror Movie Plots

Small Towns Can Charge People To Become Cops, Letting Anybody Carry Concealed Carry Weapons Anywhere

Being a police officer in the U.S. comes with a specific set of benefits, like a discount at any number of fine chain eateries and the legal right to carry a concealed firearm anywhere. Since the tiniest incorporated towns in America can run their own police forces with minimal oversight, quite a few of them started auctioning off badges to any tacticool maniac who wanted one, and it's gone about as well as you'd expect.

Lake Arthur, New Mexico had a population of 433, yet up to 323 cops, most of whom lived nowhere nearby. Instead they got their badges by paying a $400 "membership fee," like they were joining a gym for guys who daydream about being in Taken. Billionaire Robert Mercer bought badges for his whole family, while Elon Musk, Steve Wynn, and the Koch Brothers all had bodyguards with Lake Arthur police badges.

The program was run by Chief William Norwood, a former patrolman who offered to set up a police department in Lake Arthur for $1 a year. It was shut down in 2018, but only after a string of high-profile incidents, including a cop who accidentally shot his brother-in-law. There was basically no screening, which is how a group of known white supremacists showed up in Lake Arthur boasting about being in a militia, tried to fight a black resident in a supermarket, and still became cops, no questions asked.

Another Lake Arthur cop was pulled over smuggling a carload of marijuana, but avoided arrest by flashing his badge and claiming to be on police business. He later upgraded his operation to include a private plane with flight suits marked "Lake Arthur Police Department." Others used their Lake Arthur badges to carry guns onto freaking commercial flights. Good thing they were a civilian Navy unit that didn't have much in mind beyond vague financial corruption, or this would be a very different kind of article.

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