Road Not (but could-have-been) Taken

by Martin Harris

n a (sort of) historical re-run, The Green Mountain State now seems once again to have reached consensus on a long-range economic/development objective, only to default before commitment. Last time around, in the ‘60’s, it was the newly-ascendant Left (Philip Hoff had just been elected first D Guv in 150 years, thanks to previously invisible changes in the attitudes of an apparently significantly-changed electorate which made his campaign successful) which argued for Vermont’s future as “the education state”. They envisaged in that economic sector a clean and profitable multi-faceted industry without smoke-stacks or manufacturing or warehousing, but one which could co-exist comfortably with a bucolic countryside then entering the post-WWII years of declining prospects for commercial agriculture. But then, for a variety of reasons, that focus never actually happened as policy. Since then, the emphasis hasn’t been on support for any specific economic sector so much as on opposition to commercial (and even residential) development of any economically significant scale, as the once-famous (and publicly quite popular) 10-acre lot exurban low-density rural growth pattern took hold. For a few late 20th century decades it seemed to meet the objectives of the in-migrating suburbanites from the metropoli to the South: a good-size place in the country, the notion of economic ‘self-sufficiency’ beyond city utilities and grocery stores, an economic base composed of varying portions of electronic tele-commuting, government and think-tank employment, even crafts and farmers’ markets, all in a bucolic setting long on trees, grass, fields, and viewscapes, and short on big-box stores, modest-lot suburban housing, large-scale industry, strip development, and parking lots.

Historically, this image has both deep and shallow roots: it embodies the Jeffersonian notion of yeoman independence in a mixed agrarian-business economy, and, in the Vermont 10-acre lot form (not a part of Act 250, as widely believed, but rather part of new on-site sewage reg’s from the same early ‘70’s period) it came to embody an early form of post-industrial economics for a small State with a population mix then becoming politically dominated by upper-middle-class in-migrants eager to mix their notions of rural self-sufficiency with their abilities to maintain necessary cash income via information-sector or passive sources. Such concepts have been publicized by a series of books, some going back almost to the Currier-and-Ives years, and some published by government (USDA) with titles like “Five Acres and Independence”, and new titles constantly appearing. In today’s language, such mini-homesteads enable such environmental virtues as grow-your-own, local-vore, renewable energy, low-carbon-footprint, sustainability, organics, and even “harmony-with-Gaia”.

What de-railed it was the “Smart-Growth” movement, an anti- all-of-the-above campaign which called it all “sprawl” and began campaigning for smaller houses on smaller lots served by all the usual public utilities. Residents could take pride in row-housing, street-cars to work, walk-to-shopping, and so on. Such anti-self-sufficiency life-styles and development patterns have been intensively used in places like Portland, OR, and Jupiter, FL, and are the favored approach in much contemporary planning and zoning theory. In Vermont, advocates apparently believe they can reverse long-held public attitudes on these subjects , but the immediate result has been that, as with the earlier notions of “an education State” , a public-opinion-supported movement which once seemed to enjoy political favor has been neutralized: we don’t yet know whether the long-standing Vermont preferences for an exurban sort of bucolic-but-sophisticated development pattern will be conquered by the back-to-the-city anti-sprawl movement. Stay tuned.

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Presently, that movement is happily reporting (headline of recent AP piece) “Growth of Distant Suburbs Falls to Historic Low in US”. Deeper into the article we learn that “…the annual rate of growth in American cities and surrounding urban areas has surpassed that of exurbs for the first time in at least 20 years…” In a Scripps-Howard op-ed we learn that “…the recession brought development in the remote urban fringes to an abrupt halt…” and we’re given a quote from housing –economist Robert Shiller to the effect that ”…the heyday of exurbs may well be behind us.” That’s the Main-Stream-Media view. A more skeptical view comes from California planning/transportation consultant Wendell Cox, who opines in The wall Street Journal that “…planners want to herd millions into densely packed urban corridors. It won’t save the planet but will make traffic worse.” His closing graf: “A less affordable California with less attractive [exurban] housing, could disadvantage the State as much as its already destructive policies toward business.” The same, of course, could be said for Vermont. Or even more so.

That’s because CA, #1 in the nation at 37 million in population, is noticeably larger and far more irreversibly urban than VT, #49 in the nation at 626 thousand. Short of depopulating the Bay Area and the LA Basin, for example, CA couldn’t go bucolic-exurban in economic model and de-centralized development if it wanted to. VT could: quite easily if its voters wish, pursue the low-density option which was one of the theories proffered in Vision and Choice, a commentary accompanying Act 250 and examining various “growth” policy alternatives ranging from urban-first to rural-first. A dispassionate view of public opinion over the decades since, at planning and zoning hearings, typically hostile to most development/construction proposals of any significant scope, would suggest that public opinion hasn’t changed in any anti-sprawl direct since the heyday of the 10-acre lot, and still prefers that its land use be de-centralized and exurban, some mix of niche farms, preserved villages, high-tech small-scale information sector “industry”, in a sparsely-settled landscape of traditional scale up-dated with contemporary technology. The sole negative out-lier for this view has been the apparently widespread public hostility to cell-phone towers, a technological necessity, at least for now, for tele-commuting. On the other side, a recent AP news piece describes the advent of small-scale pasteurization machinery for niche dairy operations in Vermont. That there’s a market for such technology in the second smallest state suggest that the almost-Jeffersonian model of one foot on the land and the other in the office may be more popular in Vermont than the anti-sprawl folks would like to admit.