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Getting Ready for Change

The following op-ed ran in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald on January 18, 2015.

 

By Brian Shupe

Vermont is different, or at least that’s what Vermonters like to claim.

The state does look and feel different from other places, especially those that have failed to manage development in a way that maintains community character and environmental quality.

Many Vermonters claim that our distinctiveness is no accident, and in many respects they are right: Vermont banned billboards in the 1960s and enacted Act 250 — the state’s landmark development review law — as well as many other forward-thinking policies and programs. These have helped retain a largely rural, working landscape, and most of our villages and downtowns remain vital places to shop and interact with neighbors.

These policies have served us fairly well through the latter half of the 20th century. But the differences that set Vermont apart have been fading, a little at a time, for a number of years — despite the fact that our state has not had the same growth pressures that have transformed other parts of the country.

If we have been losing our distinctiveness with a small rate of population growth, how prepared are we for new types of change?

What if we were to experience future growth pressure from, for example, people in the southwest weary of endless months of drought, or coastal residents skittish about rising sea levels? Whether we are looking at today’s incremental pace of development, or the types of growth we may see in the future, some of our old laws might not be up to the challenge.

Fortunately, lawmakers and the Shumlin administration have taken initial steps to upgrade Act 250 and other environmental safeguards to prepare for an uncertain future.

In June of last year, two changes to Act 250 went into effect that are intended to correct long-standing shortcomings in the state’s primary development review law.

One change updates criterion 5, which addresses a project’s impact on traffic congestion and highway safety. It was expanded to better address access for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit. This was coupled with other statutory changes to allow the state to establish transportation districts to assess the cumulative impact of incremental development within a particular highway corridor to better fund necessary improvements.

Another change that took effect last summer involved the tune-up of a largely ignored standard — criterion 9L. Before the law was changed, Act 250 did not have a way to differentiate between projects that would support compact, downtown development (smart growth) from those that would contribute to sprawl.

The new standard encourages development within existing settlements where municipal services are present, supports the redevelopment of areas of existing commercial strip development to make those areas denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and discourages the ongoing, leap-frogging strip development along highways.

This is a critical change, because allowing strip development along the state’s highways is bad land use policy, bad transportation policy, and bad economic development policy. It undermines the commercial vitality of our downtowns and village centers, contributes to traffic congestion and increased road costs, discourages bike and pedestrian travel and transit, consumes a lot of land — often productive farmland — and diminishes Vermont’s unique brand.

The new criterion 9L will discourage sprawling development patterns outside of our existing centers. Doing this reduces pressure on our farms and forests and steers businesses closer together. This reinforces our existing communities, and reduces the amount we have to drive, among other benefits.

Many people are skeptical about changes in the rules, especially rules that have been in place for nearly 50 years. The change to 9L is no exception, and a few developers and politicians are raising alarms, despite the fact that no project — out of the more than 170 that have been approved since the change went into effect — has been denied due to criterion 9L.

When it comes to planning, financing, and executing a development project, predictability is important. Criterion 9L is new, but over time has the potential to provide more predictability, not less, because it clarifies what kind of development should happen where.

Vermont is proud to be different — we like what we have, and because of that many are skeptical of change. While this new approach to project evaluation and permitting may constitute change now, it’s also going to help us ensure that the change we experience later — whether it comes incrementally, as it has in recent years, or more rapidly, as it likely will — creates the landscape and communities that we want.

Brian Shupe is executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.