Vermont Can Lead the Nation in Responsible Growth

Burlington Free Press, Tuesday, May 20, 2003

By Thomas Hylton

A decade ago, supported by a journalism fellowship, I packed my car and began searching for states trying to save their cities, towns, and countryside.

Twelve months and 12,000 miles later, I found none doing it better than Vermont. Years before Oregon drew growth boundaries and Maryland embraced Smart Growth, Vermont began protecting its unique rural character through Act 250.

Not only did Act 250 provide a citizen-run process to evaluate and improve proposed development, its 10 review criteria helped educate Vermonters about ways growth could enhance, rather than degrade, their state's quality of life. Vermont has taken other notable steps to protect its towns and countryside:

  • The Housing and Conservation Board is the nation's only agency to combine affordable housing with open space preservation.
  • Act 60, by increasing the proportion of state funding for local schools from 30 percent to 72 percent, has reduced pressure on towns to chase after new development simply to increase their tax base.
  • The 1998 Downtown Bill, strengthened last year, provides incentives for developers to rehabilitate buildings, including their upper stories, in traditional downtowns and village centers.

Unfortunately, our nation seems addicted to sprawl, and even Vermont has vast room for improvement. New residents and businesses are mostly bypassing Vermont's traditional centers, from Burlington to Bennington, and spreading out their houses and buildings on large lots in rural areas. Sprawling development has steadily eroded Vermont's scenic landscapes and increased car dependency, leading to traffic congestion and expansion of roads and parking lots.

That's why, over the last 20 years, the percentage of land developed in Vermont has increased at more than twice the rate of its population growth.

For all its virtues, Act 250 is reactive rather than pro-active. Vermont needs to revisit and strengthen Act 200, its statewide planning law. Otherwise, its traditional settlement pattern of lovely towns surrounded by pristine open space will disappear. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Regional planning commissions should be directed to define growth areas focused around traditional town and village centers. At the same time, all towns should be required to enact or amend zoning laws to be consistent with the established regional plan. (Currently, zoning in some towns is not even consistent with their own plans.)
  • The state government should limit funding for state buildings, transportation, housing, and water and sewer lines to the designated growth areas.
  • Development outside the growth areas should be restricted through a combination of zoning, conservation easements, and a program of transferring development rights from open land to established towns.

Vermont has made a good start by purchasing conservation easements that protect 300 farms covering nearly 100,000 acres. In New Jersey, a state agency protects the Pinelands, a million-acre expanse of sensitive environmental lands, by allowing developers to purchase development credits from the owners of open land to be used for new construction in designated traditional towns.

  • Towns should be required to adopt zoning in growth areas that allows the placement of houses, stores and offices within walking distance of each other. Wisconsin has recently done this to reduce car dependency.

I live in a state with local government that’s even more parochial than Vermont's. Pennsylvania has 2,570 individual municipalities with zoning powers. But it has one stellar example of effective regional planning. Since 1993, Lancaster County, which leads the state in agriculture, has used growth boundaries, agricultural zoning, and the purchase of conservation easements to save farmland and keep its towns healthy. The country's 60 municipalities have cooperatively adopted growth boundaries around the city of Lancaster and 12 satellite towns, and more than a third of the county is zoned strictly for agriculture.

Sprawl is not inevitable. Vermont has an environmentally sensitive culture and the finest network of Smart Growth non-profits in the nation. With continued strong leadership, Vermont can set the national standard for enlightened land use planning and community building.