I think a lot of the negative criticism is very valid for this feature. If the rushing of croppers and inactive croppers is the problem, then consider the following:
1) Don't release croppers until day 25 or around then. Either have wildrerness spots turn into croppers, making this relatively random or mark them somehow for players to plan around them, depending on the objective. Randomness is a better option, but one of the issues someone mentioned was "internal drama" around the croppers.
2) Make it so a grey player's cap becomes the smallest pop villa, or just remove their cap all together, or simply add that 3 days buffer for either option in the event the player returns.
Ultimately, you don't need to drastically change the game to fix an issue like this. This disproportionately affects defensive players, and makes getting a cropper daunting for new players and less competitive kingdoms. Even gold using defensive players may not have the resource commitment to meet the chief requirements until much later, and for non-gold using players it would be almost impossible without kingdom support (which may or may not, and some cases cannot, be given).
Gold usage, and thus profits, aside I don't think these changes will work long term for the majority of players, gold users and non-gold users alike.