Incentives for Compact Development Discourage Sprawl

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There is a small bill working its way through the Vermont Legislature, which could have a big impact on sprawl. Sprawl is like a disease that threatens to pock mark Vermont and leave its beauty marred. How do we control it?

The bill would provide incentives to move development from the highways and concentrate it in downtowns. When I was governor, I issued an executive order to direct state development projects in downtowns. That was the beginning. This is the next big step. It would have the force of law and expand the enticements for downtown development to include tax incentives and relax some regulations.

One of the purposes of the bill is to permit downtowns to develop their upper stories, largely for residential use. The bill would concentrate one thirteen designated downtown areas, smaller village centers and a new concept called “compact town centers.”

The advantages of downtown development are clear. A vibrant town center saves energy. Instead of getting in the car and driving from mall to mall, busy downtowns enable people to walk from place to place. A sense of community emerges from clusters of development as neighbors meet one another, chat, and feel a sense of pride in their surroundings.

Downtown development encourages downtown preservation. By fixing up aging buildings inside and out, w often discover architectural gems, which give us a sense of time and place. When we look around us at the old familiar places we will know, we are not in an anonymous shopping center in anywhere, USA, but we are in a unique town in the state of Vermont. Downtown areas come alive when people live downtown. Instead of a dead main street, which shuts down after stores and businesses, close, residential development keeps the streets both lively and safe. Most importantly, downtown development is a good use of the land. Strip development gobbles up huge chunks of open land and storm water runoff pollutes streams. Building in downtown saves these open spaces for agricultural use or scenic beauty.

The bill would exempt downtown areas and village centers from some Act 250 regulations, if the area already had a strong development plan in place. While some are nervous about this provision, it makes sense to have fewer regulations in an area where there is an existing infrastructure for water, sewer and streets. In a period where there is little room in the budget for new ideas, it makes good sense to leverage small amounts of money to achieve large goals. A modest tax incentive and prudent streamlining of regulations could attract major investments.

Sprawl is something everyone deplores but few can do anything about it. Here is a chance to have an impact by using the carrot, rather than the stick. It is just the carrot that we need to enable Vermont towns and village centers to be lively, beautiful and great places to shop, work and live.

Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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