Beth Humstone: Looking to Italy for inspiration as we update Act 250 in Vermont

Find below the text of Beth Humstone’s commentary in the Times-Argus this week.

In the 1980s, after a decade of working in Vermont on planning and development issues, I became concerned that not enough was being done to revitalize our villages and town centers or to prevent the proliferation of unplanned development out into the countryside. I had witnessed a new era of shopping-mall development sapping the life out of downtowns and large-lot residential subdivisions contributing to the steady loss of valuable farm and forest land.

When an opportunity arose to study how Italy’s iconic town centers and landscapes had adapted to change from ancient Roman times to today, I jumped at the chance.

Act 250, Vermont’s signature land use and development law, was enacted in 1970. After my return from Italy in the 1980s, Vermont made more innovations in planning its future, such as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Act 200, and the advancement of growth centers, downtowns and villages and neighborhood development areas.

Nevertheless, in Vermont, there continued to be a steady erosion of the countryside to large-lot development, industrial and office parks, big-box and dollar stores. And so I recently returned to Italy to update my work.

It occurred to me that the ways in which Italian towns have retained their character despite centuries of rising and falling populations could be instructive as we look to improve Vermont’s Act 250. The preservation of Italian towns is the result of complex laws and governance methods that are difficult to summarize here, but some key findings — and their lessons for Act 250 — are:

  • Small Italian towns accommodated growth by increasing the densities in already built-up areas and by adding new compact development contiguous to these areas. Towns practiced a renewal of their form by expanding buildings up or out, replacing single-family homes with apartments, and integrating a mix of uses into the community.

    Vermont encourages growth in downtowns and villages, growth centers and neighborhood development areas through incentives, including some exemptions from Act 250. More exemptions could be considered where concerted efforts have been made in these places to accommodate growth. Of course, as in Italy, approval of such plans should be based on a careful review of their quality.

  • Development in Italian towns occurred where investments in services, such as roads, sewers water and town buildings, had been made.

    Act 250, in criteria 6, 7 and 9H, requires that town services not be overburdened by development, but the law could do more to limit development where facilities and town buildings do not exist. Added protections outside designated growth areas, such as in forest, wildlife and river corridors, and remote areas, should be considered.

  • Economic development within Italian towns was encouraged by requiring existing lots to be built on first before new outlying areas could be divided and sold. The result was communities had everything that was needed within walking distance and there was efficient and economical service delivery.

    Act 250 encourages but does not require master planning for large projects. Large projects should be laid out in advance and development sequenced appropriately. Criteria related to transportation should emphasize walkability of neighborhoods and access for biking and transit.

  • In Italy, land that was essential for food and fiber production and protected the community from flooding, soil erosion and loss of water supplies was protected and was made accessible to residents. There was a balance between the capacity of the land to provide for its residents and the population of the community.

    The state of Vermont and the regional planning commissions have maps delineating floodplains, wildlife habitat, forestlands, farmland, steep slopes and other significant natural resource areas. A set of coordinated regional maps could help to guide permitting decisions that are based on the capability of the land for development, inform developers as to which places could be problematic if proposed for growth, and inform all as to what lands are accessible to residents.

  • In Italy, diverse populations lived in close proximity to each other in a variety of housing types.

    Act 250 does not sufficiently address the equal access of all residents to housing opportunities. Incentives for affordable housing projects in downtowns and neighborhood development areas would help, as would protections for existing investments in housing and community development.

These are just some examples of how we can learn from centuries of evolution of Italy’s historic towns — how they adapted to change, dealt with sprawl, created walkable centers and respected the capacity of the land. Their experience can inspire us as we update Act 250 to work better for our own land and people.

Beth Humstone is an urban planner and the co-founder and former executive director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. She is an adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was formerly board chairwoman of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund.