Our Work

Editorial: Landscape Threatened

This Editorial originally ran in the Valley News on February 29th, 2012.

RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT in Vermont proceeds at a measured pace. But don’t let the incremental rate of growth fool you. Between 2002 and 2008, the housing stock increased by more than 13,000 units, or roughly 2,000 units a year, slowly altering the farms, fields and woodlands that characterize Vermont and its way of life.

As staff writer Krista Langlois recently reported, large tracts of undeveloped land are disappearing throughout the state. According to a study by the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Vermont Family Forests, a nonprofit conservation group, large parcels of unbroken land (defined as 50 acres or more) declined by 42,000 acres between 2003 and 2009. That’s 7,000 acres of paradise lost per year, on average. About a quarter ofthat was forestland, which declined by 4 percent. The changes were notable in this area, especially in Hartford, Randolph, Royalton, Tunbridge and Vershire.

While the subdivision of land, or “parcelization,” has long been recognized as a threat toVermont’s -landscape, there’s Maintaining the integrity of forests is important for environmental and economic reasons. never been a systematic attempt to track statewide trends. That’s why this survey is so useful. It allows municipal officials and regional planners, among others, to actually see the disappearing forest for the trees, so to speak. Forests, after all, don’t recognize boundaries, and the impact of development is best viewed through a wide-angle lens.

Still, this survey “is not about stopping growth,” said J amey Fidel, director of the Forest and Biodiversity Program for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “It’s about where you put it and how you do it. It is important for towns to be aware of detrimental parcelization and to be pro-active in planning to maintain the integrity of forests while still allowing for economic growth.”

Maintaining the integrity of forests is important for environmental and economic reasons. Forests filter water and absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, while also provid~ ing timber and other products. Forests also shelter wildlife. To break up large tracts of woodland is to disrupt habitats and the corridors along which animals such as bear, deer and moose roam. Finally, they offer abundant recreational opportunities for residents and tourists.

A 4 percent loss of woodland over six years may not sound like much. But the trends are worrisome. Undeveloped land in parcels of 50 acres or more is changing hands relatively quickly – almost a quarter of such parcels were sold between 2004 and 2009. Land is selling at prices above the level at which sustainable forest management is cost-effective, suggesting that many owners are seeking returns from land development or speculation. In short, “parcelization” pays.

Since most development does not trigger state-level review under Act 250, it’s up to municipalities to protect woodlands.¬∑ That means they need to have effective land-use policies in place to do so. Yet half of Vermont towns don’t have any subdivision regulations at all. Those with rules don’t always have sensible ones. This study points out, for example, that the disruption of the forest is one of the unintended consequences of large-lot zoning, which is common in the Upper Valley. There is an alternative. Norwich, for example, specifies the number of allowable housing units in particular locations, depending on the land’s characteristics. This emphasis on unit density, rather than on minimum lot sizes, encourages development closer to town, where the roads and services are better, and discourages it close to the Appalachian Trail and other forested sites the town wishes to protect. As a result, Norwich, unlike some neighboring towns, has had more success in preserving unbroken tracts.

Whatever the strategy, towns in the region- on both sides of the river- must work together to preserve what’s left of the natural landscape. To divide the land into smaller and smaller bits for residential and other development is to not to conquer the future but to lose it.