Defining Sprawl

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(Host) Commentator Dick Mallary wonders if sprawl by any other name would look the same.

(Mallary) In most circles in Vermont, it is easy to find agreement that sprawl is a bad thing and that we ought to do everything we can to control it. Nobody seems to have a good word to say for sprawl. There is even a well-funded organization to address the issue calling itself the “Forum on Sprawl.”

But, what is this thing that we call sprawl? Everyone seems to agree that certain kinds of development are sprawl. Examples are the sprouting of big box stores and housing developments near the Williston/Tafts Corners area or the strip development pattern on Shelburne and Williston Roads outside Burlington.

But, is it sprawl when gas stations and convenience stores are constructed at the interchanges of our interstate highways? Is it sprawl when any store or commercial operation is located away from the middle of an established downtown? Is it sprawl when I see the gradual build up of residences along rural roads, such as in my town of Brookfield?

Everyone seems to have a different idea of what sprawl is and a different level of concern about it. Defining sprawl reminds me of the Supreme Court justice’s comment on defining obscenity: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

I think that for many people, sprawl is any change or development that doesn’t benefit them but that offends their aesthetic sensibilities or increases their commuting time.

Sprawl is as American as apple pie. It is a part of the American culture of individual liberty and the secure ownership of private property. It is an outgrowth of our history of the frontier and open spaces. Almost any effort to control what is defined as sprawl will involve regulating the use of private property and the way in which individuals lead their lives in order to achieve a perceived public benefit.

Profound philosophical and political questions are involved when we make determinations as to what rights individuals should have in the use of their private property, what powers government has to regulate that use, when regulation becomes so draconian that it constitutes an unlawful confiscation of property and what restraints on the activities of individuals are consistent with our free society.

It has been occasionally suggested that if all the Vermonters who profess to be concerned with sprawl would live in apartments in established downtown areas nearest to their places of work and would do all of their shopping in downtown stores, we would be well on the way to eliminating sprawl. There is, however, no evidence that such a voluntary approach to the issue is forthcoming.

If voluntary action is not the solution to sprawl, then there can be regulatory solutions and there can be free market solutions, but what is certain is that there is no simple answer that will please all parties. How we deal with sprawl promises to be a central issue in politics and the courts for the indeterminate future.

This is Dick Mallary in Brookfield.

Dick Mallary has served extensively in state government and is a former U.S. congressman from Vermont. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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