We've all driven past highway construction signs that boldly proclaim, "Your tax dollars at work." But rarely do those signs appear next to new strip malls or housing developments, even when taxpayers pick up the tab for the new roads, sewer lines and fire hydrants that serve them. Often overlooked in discussions about sprawl is the fact that our tax dollars and the state agencies that spend them are also complicit in the steady erosion of Vermont's rural character.
This week, Vermonters will get a much clearer picture of where they're footing the bill for sprawl, as Burlington hosts "The State of the States on Smart Growth." The one-day conference, sponsored by the Vermont Smart Growth Collaborative, brings together smart-growth heavyweights from around the country to swap stories and strategies for revitalizing downtowns and protecting farmlands, forests and communities. Insiders have nicknamed the event "Sprawlpalooza."
To kick off the conference, the Vermont Forum on Sprawl is releasing the findings of its new report about the relationship between public policy and sprawl. Researchers reviewed five years of public projects conducted by eight state agencies under the Dean administration. Reportedly the first of its kind in the nation, the analysis looked at how public investments in schools, highways, housing, sewer expansions and so on helped or hindered smart growth in Vermont. Research-ers even measured the sprawl-inducing effects of Act 250, developers' favorite anti-growth bogeyman.
Among the scheduled speakers at the Oct. 9 conference are Governor Jim Douglas, Mayor Peter Clavelle and former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening. The father of "smart growth" - he reportedly coined the term - Glendening made sprawl reduction a top priority of his administration. As anyone who has driven across Maryland knows, that was no minor undertaking. Glendening now heads the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, a national coalition trying to slow the national paradigm shift of land use from cows to condos.
The timing and location of this year's conference are serendipitous, as the city of Burlington itself is rethinking its own use of space. It's no exaggeration to say that the zoning ordinance revisions now under consideration will have dramatic repercussions on what the Queen City looks like in the next 20 years. And, apparently, not everyone is thrilled with the blueprints now on the table.
Yves Bradley owns The Body Shop on Church Street and serves on a half-dozen or so committees and nonprofit boards, from the Burlington Police Commission to Preservation Burlington. He is astounded there hasn't been more vigorous debate over the Legacy Project recommendation to grow the Queen City by 20,000 people in the next 10 years. Bradley is troubled by what this rapid growth would mean, especially if the target population is low-income.
"Am I against poor people? No!" Bradley insists. "What I am for is raising the standard for the people who are here. We're talking about increasing the population of the city by 50 percent in the highest-demand population, when we can barely meet the service needs we have now."
Though smart-growth advocates promote "urban infill" - growing a city by increasing its density rather than by promoting sprawl - Bradley contends that adding 20,000 more people will only stress an aging housing base. And at a time when many residents already live in squalor, the city has only limited resources to enforce its housing codes, he argues. "We've got the middle class just fleeing this city because they can't find a place to live," Bradley says. "We're losing families, it's impacting schools, it's why traffic and parking are a nightmare, property taxes keep going up, you name it."
Though it would be easy to assume that attitudes about urban infill divide along socioeconomic lines, the truth may be a bit more complicated. Dave Berezniak is a longtime resident of the Old North End. Though he's neither an attorney nor an activist, he spent $150 of his own money last week to appeal a decision by the Burlington Development Review Board approving a 27-unit, low-income housing project at 102 Archibald Street.
No, it's not the "low-income" character of the housing that troubles Berezniak and many of his neighbors - many of whom also fit that description. What irks them is that city codes say a housing project of that size calls for 60 parking spaces, but the review board granted the project a 30-space parking waiver. Why? As one neighbor suggested, it's because the city assumes low-income residents don't own cars. If so, that's a bold assumption in a neighborhood where finding parking is a daily chore.
"No one is saying don't build new housing," says Berezniak, who filed the appeal with the Vermont Environmental Court in Barre. "We're just saying, scale back the project and make it fit the lot." At least 80 other residents have signed a petition opposing the size of the project as well, Berezniak says. Meanwhile, city officials won't say much about it now that it's under appeal. Perhaps some of those smart-growth experts in town this week have a solution for this one?