ST. GEORGE -- People in Chittenden County sometimes snicker at the odd little burg of St. George. When the town was chartered in 1763, a surveying mistake left it with 20,000 fewer acres than expected. So on a map, the 3.6-square-mile town -- Vermont's smallest -- resembles a box that has been carelessly dropped, and one of its corners collapsed.
St. George's 688 residents lack amenities such as municipal water and septic service. They have no schools or fire department. They've got a Williston zip code and a Hinesburg telephone exchange. But they call their resolutely rural community the county's "hidden jewel," and they're eager to protect it.
At least that was the prevailing sentiment at the "visioning workshop" in the St. George town office on March 22. The St. George Planning Commission sponsored the two-and-a-half-hour evening session to generate public input for the rewrite of the town plan, which was last revised in 1991. More than 20 residents -- mostly young professionals, as well as a farmer, an artist and an older woman in a purple hat -- packed the converted ranch house to discuss what makes St. George special, and how to keep it that way.
Planning commissioners say the rewrite is long overdue. They point out that St. George has so far escaped the building booms taking place in neighboring Williston, Shelburne and Hinesburg -- just 35 percent of St. George has been developed -- but that may be about to change, they warn.
The town's poor drainage and lack of infrastructure have traditionally hampered development, but commissioners fear that as technology improves, those restrictions will fade. And they say the town plan isn't specific enough to prevent developers from gobbling up open space.
A flier advertising the visioning workshop claims that under the current zoning restrictions, over 2000 of the town's 2325 acres are considered buildable. And the current plan could allow the town, which has just 270 homes, to add another 510.
Planning Commissioner Scott Baker is also concerned about keeping big-box stores out of St. George, which is just down the road from Taft Corners. "A town like Williston can absorb a PetSmart," Baker observes. "In St. George, even a single project can change the entire face of the town."
Consultant Brandy Saxton of Place Sense led the workshop. Saxton's work is funded through a $10,000 grant the Planning Commission recently won. The consultant first asked participants to separate into four groups to describe the town of St. George.
One group gathered around a metal folding table in the office kitchen. They came up with adjectives such as "small" and "beautiful." Planning Commissioner Ron Arms observed, "It's kind of neat to be on a Class 4 road in Chittenden County."
One woman noted that St. George is really several separate communities. There are housing developments and a trailer park along Routes 116 and 2A, and other, larger houses tucked away in the woods. Because everything's spread out, even traveling in town can be difficult, especially when the dirt roads are bad, she said. "I had to drive through three other towns just to get here."
There was a lot of agreement about how to describe the town. Participants also agreed on the town's strengths and weaknesses -- most groups mentioned the town's open space as a strength, and lack of protections for it as a weakness.
But residents had different ideas about how best to protect the space. And the final exercise of the night, crafting vision statements, turned out to be particularly tricky. By now the crowd had thinned, and just three groups attempted to produce a vision. Only two were successful.
Some people wanted to see more development in a "pedestrian friendly town with neighborhoods surrounded by publicly accessible conservation land." Others suggested preserving open land "through economic benefit for landowners."
In fact, a survey distributed at Town Meeting Day asked residents how much they would be willing to contribute to a town fund to preserve open space. It's not a theoretical question -- the town's only dairy farm just sold its herd. Selling the farm may be next. Results of the survey will be posted on the Place Sense website within a few weeks.
One group agreed that landowners should be compensated somehow, but deadlocked over whether development should occur in a manufactured town center. One woman argued for 10-acre lots, while a man supported quarter-acre lots surrounded by more open space. When Saxton asked the group to report, Planning Commission member Connie Kendall summed up their 20-minute exchange: "There is not one vision."
Saxton closed the meeting by inviting everyone to attend planning sessions scheduled for the second Wednesday of every month for the next year.
Before he left, Commissioner Scott Baker said the process couldn't get started soon enough. He noted that construction is about to begin on the town's first convenience store, and pointed out that 75 acres in the town center are still available for development. An effort to create a town center in the 1970s fizzled, but Baker thinks it's nearing time for another try.
"That kind of noose," he said, "is tightening."