More Great Thoughts: Housing and conservation

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(Host) The tension between development and preservation is not a new one. Almost twenty years ago Vermonters had an idea about smart growth that has been both effective and widely copied. Commentator Bill Shutkin has the story as VPR continues to explore Great Thoughts of Vermont.

(Shutkin) A wildlife refuge or affordable housing? A farmfield versus a big box store? A scenic ridge top or an assembly of wind turbines?

These simple couplets describe a few of the signal land use challenges of our time, underlying which are critical trade-offs that go to the core of our definition of a just and sustainable society.

Saving wildlife, farmfields, and ridge tops is about preserving the best of our history and landscape. We resist change, trying to keep things they way they are because they’re good or cherished or because change, in whatever form, can be a scary business.

Meanwhile, housing, big box stores and wind turbines, reflect our basic human need to build and not merely to preserve – be it through architecture, or commerce, or science, or public policy.

Here in Vermont, we have an institution that’s simultaneously a saver and a builder. One of a handful of its kind anywhere, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board is a state-supported funding agency with a unique mandate: to help conserve working farms and other natural and historic resources while supporting affordable housing and community development.

The Board was the brainchild not of a single person but of many – land trusts, affordable housing advocates, historic preservation groups – who came together in 1986 to form the Housing and Conservation Coalition, a smart growth organization before the term was even invented. In 1987, the law establishing the Board was enacted.

Fast forward 17 years, and today the Board has helped conserve over 325,000 acres of Vermont’s countryside while underwriting the construction of roughly 7500 units of perpetually affordable housing. It has also become a national model, borrowed by states like New Jersey and Rhode Island and revered by smart growth advocates across the country.

The Board has been a key player in not just preserving Vermont’s landscapes but creating places in the fullest sense, where nature and culture, past and present, wealthy and low-income are linked together by that one great denominator, the land.

As Gus Seelig, the Board’s Director and one of the visionaries behind its formation, says: “Our goal has been to empower Vermont communities to conserve and develop assets – both homes and land – that would maintain Vermont’s historic pattern of compact village settlement surrounded by a working countryside and thriving communities for Vermonters of all backgrounds and incomes.”

At a time when it seems there’s little room for agreement regarding difficult public policy questions, when local communities and the nation as a whole appear divided – Blue State against Red, us versus them – the Board and its efforts are a beacon of hope. Reaching across different groups and points of view, it is a rare public voice claiming we are all united by the natural resources and community assets that sustain us, by our own common ground.

Even better, it’s actually proving it.

This is Bill Shutkin of Peru.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.

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