Coley Garner was about to lose everything.
That thought sent a chill through her, and she leaned closer to the crackling fire she’d built in the only bare spot in the overgrown yard. The hot coals burned red, rhythmic, and hypnotic in the crisp autumn twilight. Warmed in body, her mind was not nearly as soothed.
Each time she ventured a look away from the comfort of the fire, she saw the gorgeous, old farmhouse looming over her and remembered what she stood to lose. The Starling Place was both her dream and her hope for the future. She refused to give it up.
After all, purchasing the historic home and land had been Coley’s own personal miracle. The Starling Place belong to her now. Everything from the brick foundation to the shingles on the old roof. She owned it all and was painstakingly restoring it from decades of abandonment to new life. One day soon, she would sit on the wraparound porch or read a book in front of one its half-dozen fireplaces.
Coley had waited long enough, worked hard enough, sacrificed enough. It was time for her to fulfill her dream. She and the rest of the Garner girls grew up in these mountains, and the old Starling family homeplace had fascinated her since the day she stumbled across it, nestled back in the woods.
From that moment forward, her dream was to own and restore the historic property, and she’d had to wait a long time to fulfill it. It had to mean something that the place hadn’t been snapped up by some other home restorer or knocked down and turned into depressing condos.
The Starling Place had waited for Coley, and she intended to turn this crumbling twenty-acre farm into the premier bed-and-breakfast in the North Georgia mountains.
Even the name made Coley wince. Waldenberg was a Bavarian-inspired tourist trap one town over, and if their city planners had their way, Laurelvale would become part of Cartoonville.
Coley shifted in her peeling metal chair and looked at her younger sisters. Lyssa sat sideways, one leg slung over her lawn chair, while their middle sister Rowyn was artfully arranged on a chaise lounge. Both were absorbed in tech.
“We have to fight this,” Coley said into the quiet night.
“Fight what?” Rowyn asked, only half listening as usual.
“The city of Waldenberg’s plan to absorb Laurelvale, you dope,” Lyssa said from behind the glow of her tablet. “Haven’t you been paying attention?”
“I don’t see what’s so bad about it,” Rowyn said, still flicking through something on her phone. “Waldenberg is icky, but it’s not all Bavarian kitsch. It also has lots of regular restaurants and stores. Their mall is actually pretty decent.”
“What does that matter?” Lyssa asked. “So they have fast food joints and chain stores? That doesn’t mean they have the right to make us become part of their city.”
Coley nodded in agreement with Lyssa’s assessment. It was the same old story, one that might turn up on a cheesy holiday movie where the old factory goes out of business because of a greedy businessman and the livelihood of everyone in town was in danger. Only this story was worse.
Because it was real and it was happening to her.
“It’s a land grab, pure and simple,” Coley added, her ire coming to the surface. Laurelvale contained a great deal of undeveloped—translation: valuable—land. And that’s why the City of Waldenberg had draw its incorporation borders specifically to include it.
They wanted to develop it.
If they had their way, the lovely mountain community of Laurelvale would probably be turned into a godawful tourist trap, complete with Bavarian-style buildings, cheap trinket shops, and probably saltwater taffy stores. And they were nowhere near the ocean!
Worst of all, the Starling Place would probably be demolished so identical condos could be built to house tourists. Coley’s stomach turned at the idea of her 1910 farmhouse being demolished for anything as depressing as builder’s grade condos.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t get it,” Rowyn said, finally putting her phone aside to look at Coley with a furrowed brow. “Those Waldenbergers said they want to make Laurelvale better. What’s so bad about street lights and roads without potholes?”
Rowyn was right. Waldenberg’s presentation at the information meeting sounded nice. Their proposal was meant to lull the people of Laurelvale into a false sense of security. They cast their motives in glowing terms, claiming they wanted to give the rural community all the benefits of the city: street lights, improved roads, a full-time fire department, more police protection.
But what they didn’t say was that once the city was incorporated, the taxes and regulations would begin. The people of Laurelvale’s ability to farm would be pared down bit by bit until there was nothing left for them to grow or raise. After all, cities didn’t have chickens running free range. And they didn’t enjoy the verdant smell of horse manure on the spring breeze or the sounds of guineas screeching at dawn.
Coley could do without the guineas at dawn, but she didn’t want to make the decision for her neighbors, who used guineas to control the insect populations on their farms.
“There’s nothing wrong with nice roads,” Coley said, extending her cold fingers toward the fire. “But they come at a high cost. I could lose the Starling Place.”
“But you just bought it. You own it,” Rowyn protested. “They can’t steal it from you.”
“No, but there are other ways for people to acquire land. They might rezone so that I can’t operate a bed-and-breakfast, or maybe they won’t allow people farm in the city limits. Laws can be misused to take away people’s choices about how and where they live.”
Coley tapped an errant coal back into the fire with the toe of her boot. Then, needing something else to do, she tossed another log onto the fire, sending sparks swirling skyward.
“So why don’t we just vote no?” Rowyn asked, shrugging a slim shoulder. “No one at the town meeting seemed to want to join them anyway.”
“Because it’s not that simple. Waldenberg only needs 15 percent of eligible voters in the proposed city border to sign the petition to incorporate. So it’s possible for them to get the requisite number for the petition without anyone in Laurelvale actually signing.”
“So you have no vote at all?” Rowyn asked.
“But that’s not fair!” Rowyn objected, her eyes bright.
Coley pressed her lips together and shook her head. “I’m not sure we can stop them.”
“There’s always a way, Coley,” Lyssa said, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “And I think I’ve found it.”
“Really?” Coley asked, scooting her chair across the bare dirt so she could see her sister’s tablet.
“State statute number—”
“Lyssa,” Rowyn groaned. “I’ll give you a million dollars if you spare us your scientific jargon and legalese and just tell us what it says.”
“You heard her,” Lyssa said to Coley as she jerked a thumb at Rowyn. “She’s about to owe me a million bucks.”
“You two can settle the debt later,” Coley said, impatient to hear the potential solution to her problem. If she let this go on, her sisters would be sniping at each other for the next half hour. And then there would be no getting back on track. “Just tell me what we have to do to save the Starling Place.”
“Yes, ma’am, get to the point,” Lyssa said with an exaggerated eye roll. “Basically, if we want to keep Laurelvale from being absorbed into the Borg, we have to become our own town.”
Coley frowned. “We’re trying to avoid incorporation. What else you got?”
Lyssa closed her tablet case. “Nothing.”
Dread washed over Coley. Lyssa couldn’t be right.
Incorporating Laurelvale by itself didn’t sound any better than becoming part of the City of Waldenberg. Laurelvale was not meant to be an incorporated city. Its residents liked their way of life exactly as it was, and they certainly didn’t want to be changed from country to city.
Their little town was doing just fine on its own, thank you very much.
Unincorporated Laurelvale already had a volunteer fire department and a low crime rate. Commerce was taken care of too. Laurelvale Square still had a bustling downtown like those that had disappeared in other small towns thanks to urban sprawl. You could find anything you needed at the Mercantile, Brown Fox Books, the Open Fire Grill, the Drugstore, bakery, and the hometown grocery store.
Laurelvale didn’t need to become urban to be a wonderful place to live. It was already a great place.
Frustrated, Coley kicked another coal into the fire. There had to be another way.
“There’s no other option?” she asked, her voice tight with desperation.
Lyssa shook her head. “Not that I can tell, but would it really be that bad? I mean, think about it,” she said, leaning toward her older sister. “If we form our own town, we do it our way. We don’t have to become ‘urban.’” She put the last word in air quotes. “We just have to incorporate as a means of defense.”
Coley pressed her lips together. It sounded as if Waldenberg had forced them into a lose-lose situation. They could either lose themselves in a city that essentially gave them no voice, or they could start their own city and risk creating a bureaucracy of their own.
“So if we incorporate ourselves,” Coley began carefully, “we could make our own rules, and ensure the farms survive for as long as people want to work them?”
“Exactly,” Lyssa said.
“Okay,” Coley said, drawing out the word. “So how do we do it? Incorporate?”
Lyssa pointed at her now-closed tablet. “According to what I read, we need a majority of residents in the most dense population center to agree to incorporate. That would be the people around Laurelvale Square. Then, we choose a name and a way to govern. After that, we have one more big decision. We can either draw the boundaries of our city to include all the farmland, or we give land owners the choice to annex their property voluntarily.”
“Annex?” Rowyn repeated, having gone back to only half listening. “I thought that was a part of a building.”
“It is,” Lyssa agreed. “But it also means property owners joining a larger entity.”
The idea of drawing Laurelvale’s boundaries to force residents to join did not appeal to Coley at all. Officially, the people around the town square would be the ones with the votes, not the outlying areas. But the farmers needed to have a voice too. They needed a say in what happened to their land.
“If we draw the borders without giving people the choice, it makes us just as bad as Waldenberg. We have to give people the choice.”
“So the Starling Place would have to be annexed too?” Rowyn asked.
Coley consulted her mental map of Laurelvale. The Starling Place lay well outside the population center near the square.
They both looked at Lyssa for confirmation.
“If I read the statute and the tax map right, yes,” Lyssa said slowly. “Every property owner between the square and the edge of Laurelvale would have to opt in. If one property owner refuses, then the chain stops. And what’s left could still be absorbed into Waldenberg.”
Lyssa looked at Coley as if trying to get her to understand some issue she was missing. Even Rowyn, who floated along in her own little world most of the time, stared at her expectantly.
“What?” Coley asked, ticking off the names of land owners she knew would voluntarily become part of the Town of Laurelvale. “So that means to be sure the Starling Place is included, we have to get the Millers’ dairy, the Wilson Farm, and…oh crap. Dean Alexander.”