Growth Centers Program Faces Uncertain Future
The most important accomplishment of the 2005-2006 legislative biennium was the enactment of the Vermont Growth Centers program. VNRC was a strong advocate for the bill, and was heavily involved in crafting and passing this landmark legislation, which took effect in July of 2006. We have continued to monitor its implementation and while we remain optimistic, we are concerned that the program may not achieve its full potential.
The growth centers program, jointly administered by the Natural Resources Board (NRB) and Department of Housing & Community Affairs (DHCA), got off to a solid start. Rather than rushing ahead to launch the complicated new program, state officials took a deliberative approach to preparing a solid implementation manual and developing application materials. A special $40,000 municipal planning grant was also awarded (to the Town of Colchester, one of six municipalities that applied for that one-time funding opportunity), and several other communities have received smaller grants to undertake growth center planning.
The first, and thus far only, municipality to receive growth center designation was the Town of Williston. VNRC, together with other members of the smart growth collaborative, were initially concerned about the scale of the proposed growth center, and worked with Town planners to change the boundaries to better comply with applicable statutory requirements. However, after this agreement, the expanded Downtown Board, at the urging of Board Chair and Secretary of Commerce & Community Affairs Secretary Kevin Dorn, arbitrarily expanded the boundaries beyond what the town requested. The effect of the change was to include, in the growth center, existing big box stores and adjacent land that are not planned to be redeveloped in a compact, pedestrian oriented development pattern, as required by law.
VNRC fought this redrawing of the map, bringing a case before the Vermont Supreme Court. However, the court ruled that the growth center statute itself is not drafted in a way that would allow a decision of this type to be appealed to that court.
Given this ruling, VNRC is concerned that the state, in making future designations, may not accountable to the public. And we are concerned that the state would not, as additional communities bring forward applications (the town of Bennington has submitted a final application) feel bound by the clear designation requirements and smart growth principles included in the law.
Adding to VNRC’S concern about the future of the growth centers implementation are recent staff cuts in DHCA that jeopardize the agency’s ability to adequately promote and administer the program. The year after the growth centers legislation was enacted, Secretary Dorn testified that additional staff positions were needed for that purpose. Those positions were not created, and the number of staff positions has since been reduced.
Our concern over the effectiveness of the growth centers law has been further exacerbated by the creation of the “Vermont Neighborhoods” bill this year, which has been the focus of much agency attention. And even more troubling, the neighborhoods program will serve as a disincentive for communities to seek growth center designation. This is because the designation requirements, including the amount of community planning needed to avoid sprawling development patterns and impacts on farmland and fragile resources, are greatly reduced in the neighborhood program as compared to what is required for growth centers.
These trends and circumstances do not bode well for proper implementation of the growth centers law, which remains a great opportunity for Vermont to better manage development in a way that builds strong, economically vital community centers and maintains the working landscape. For it to be successful, however, state administrators will have to show strong leadership in carrying out the law as the legislature intended it to be carried out. VNRC will continue to advocate for policies that support growth centers through adherence to the designation requirements, additional incentives for communities to undertake growth center planning, and future assurances that designation decisions are accountable to municipalities and the public.