Strip development – auto-oriented development along highways outside our community centers – can negatively affect the vibrancy of those centers, the function and safety of our roads, and our state’s carbon footprint. This incremental development of gas stations, small box stores, restaurants, and more also threatens to undermine our landscape. The many issues caused by strip development show that where we choose to develop matters for achieving various local and state goals.
Sprawl and Strip Development in Vermont
In a rural state like Vermont, some assume that we don’t experience sprawl or strip development. While Vermont may not see the scale of sprawl found elsewhere, we still see land used in ways that reinforce auto dependency and break up farm and forest land. The Vermont Forum on Sprawl Publication What is Sprawl in Vermont? identifies and describes what “sprawl” means in a rural state.
The most often-recognized form of sprawl is commercial strip development: the linear pattern of individual commercial uses along rural highways, made up primarily of single-story buildings, each with a separate driveway and parking area. Parcels tend to be broad, to take advantage of highway exposure. This means the “strip” is entirely developed for auto traffic, and rarely connects to existing centers, neighborhoods or walking or biking infrastructure.
The Costs of Strip Development
Sprawl and strip development can lead to many individual and community costs over time, including:
- Decline of community vitality and downtown health – Losing retail sales to stores in outlying areas can lead to vacant buildings, and abandonment of public investment in historic areas.
- Increased community expenses – Maintaining roads, water and sewer that lead to scattered development costs taxpayers more money than serving compact development.
- Diminished environmental quality – Poorly planned development increases stormwater runoff, fragments farm and forest land, and can lead to the loss of habitat and open space.
- Increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions – If driving is people’s only choice to access jobs, shopping, and services, it increases energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as costs to individuals who are compelled to own vehicles.
- Loss of highway capacity and a decline in traffic safety – Multiple driveways result in frequent automobile turning movements, causing congestion and increased risk of accidents.
- Loss of community character and sense of place – Strip development is often dominated by national chain stores that impose standardized franchise designs that don’t reflect Vermont’s heritage.
Furthermore, State and local communities should take actions to focus development in existing downtowns and village centers. This suggests that there are opportunities to work on attracting development to locations – like downtowns and villages – that bring broader community benefits.
The Changing Nature of Strip Development in Vermont
In the past, “big box stores” have impacted Vermont’s land and downtowns. Though fewer of these have been built in recent years, “small boxes” in strip locations continue to proliferate.
One prevalent example of small box development is dollar stores: general merchandise stores that typically also sell food. While many welcome the store as a provider of affordable goods in rural areas, some towns have expressed concerns about impacts on community character, wetlands, and strip development.
The concerns are warranted: VNRC’s research has shown that as of July 2017, nearly 61% of the Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar stores operating in Vermont are located in strip development or sprawl locations, and almost 36% were in villages and downtowns (just under 4%, or two stores, are in transitional locations).
Addressing Strip Development in Vermont
There is no one factor that determines how our landscape and settlement patterns change over time. Various policies and public decisions at the local, state and federal level, as well as individual preferences and actions, have served to foster sprawl. These include:
- Public investments in roads, public buildings, water, sewer and other infrastructure in peripheral areas; disinvestment in existing centers
- Land regulations that promote spread out, land consumptive development
- Increases in our population
- Consumer desire for rural lifestyle with large homes and large yards, sense of security and less traffic congestion
- Preference of business and industry for easy highway access, plenty of free parking and corporate identity
- Demands of commercial tenants for particular locations and standardized designs for buildings and sites
- Other public policies, including tax policies and utility rate structures
- Higher costs of development in older, traditional centers
- Lower land prices in peripheral areas
- Commercial lending practices that favor suburban development
- Weakening farm and forestry sectors
While there are many causes of sprawl and strip development, there are also local actions that communities can take to prevent them. Communities cannot exclude specific types of businesses, but can shape where development happens and how it looks. This may mean promoting retail growth primarily in downtowns and villages, and having certain design requirements so that a business is compatible with the community’s character. It is possible to have growth without sprawl.
At the state level, Vermont has both long-standing and more recent policies that aim to balance growth and economic development with thoughtful use of our land. Some of these policies include:
- State planning goals that promote historic settlement patterns and prevent strip development. Regional plans are required to conform to these state planning goals. Plan policies can be written to prevent strip development (the B&M Realty case was one such example).
- Criteria in Act 250 that address sprawl and scattered development, such as Criterion 9L.
- The so-called “sewer rule,” enacted in 2002, which says that wastewater treatment projects, including sewer line extensions, are only eligible for funding if they serve a locally designated growth center, unless the facility addresses “severe” health and environmental problems outside these areas.
State policies play an important role, but preventing strip development and ensuring responsible use of our environmental and fiscal resources ultimately depends on local action.
See the Tools and Case Studies below for information about what municipalities can do.
- Access Management
- Billboard and Sign Control
- Design Review Regulations
- Mixed Use Development
- Subdivision Regulations
Related Case Studies: