A view from the Islands: development pressures

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(Host) The Champlain Islands have long been known as a quiet and rural place. But now, Grand Isle has become Vermont’s fastest growing county, and its identity is changing. Where once there were farms and summer cottages, million dollar homes are taking root.

VPR’s Lynne McCrea travels to South Hero, where people are working to meet the challenges of growth.

(McCrea) Morning chores on John Roy’s farm. This is one of only five dairy farms still operating in South Hero. While his daughter Cecile feeds their young heifers, John Roy recounts changes on the islands beginning with improvements to Route 2.

(Roy) “When they built the new road from the interstate – Chimney Corners out to the Islands – it opened up to a 15 minute ride into Burlington. So things just started to change. The people started to change. There wasn’t such an emphasis on agriculture – it was more on IBM and GE. There started to be a commuter town.”

(McCrea) In the 1980s and 90s, South Hero experienced a slow transformation. Roads to the Islands improved, and farming declined across the county. In the last 10 years, the number of dairy farms dropped from 53 to 25. Meanwhile, the population grew by 17%. That’s a rate far ahead of all other Vermont counties.

As farmers sold their land, houses began to fill in. Jeff Sikora started designing and building homes on the Islands in the mid-1980s and he’s been busy ever since.

(Sikora) “There’s just a real desire to move to the Islands because it’s a beautiful place, it’s close to Burlington and you’ll find prices reflect distance to Burlington. Probably around 1980 you could buy a one-acre lake shore lot in South Hero for $30,000. And that kind of thing now is selling for $200,000.”

(McCrea) Escalating property values is something that concerns Senator Dick Mazza, who’s been representing the Islands for nearly 20 years. He hears from longtime seasonal home owners who are struggling to keep their property in the family.

(Mazza) “If you have a small home and you have 5,600 feet of lakeshore – that’s the problem. Can you maintain that much lakeshore and still stay in your property? I think, unfortunately, a lot of folks will be forced to sell. Because to maintain it versus the value they could receive by selling it, the decision is gonna be made to sell it.”

(McCrea) And when a farm is sold, what becomes of that large parcel of land? Builder Jeff Sikora fears an increase in “shoestring lots,” where rows of houses stretch into agricultural fields, and tree growth slowly begins to take over:

(Sikora) “And all of a sudden you’re back to totally wooded land just like happened in Massachusetts and Connecticut. And that’s one of the prime things of the Islands, when you come up through here, it’s great to see open vistas to the lake. And that’ll disappear over time.”

(McCrea) Sikora’s building company is working against that trend with its latest project 18 homes on a 200-acre farm. Sites have been designed to surround an existing agricultural field, and property owners share some of their land to keep the adjoining property in agricultural use:

(Sikora) “And luckily we were able to preserve a lot of it in agriculture, and develop at the same time.”

(McCrea) Harrison Lebowitz was a relative newcomer to Vermont when he began thinking about ways to keep the land here in use.

(Lebowitz) “I was foolishly waving a wine bottle at dinner in 1992 ranting and raving about the plight of Vermont family farms and said, ‘Well, what about a vineyard? Why can’t a vineyard thrive in Vermont?'”

(McCrea) After three years of studying climate conditions and business plans, Vermont’s first commercial vineyard was launched in South Hero. Lebowitz grows 11 acres of grape vines and says he’s seen slow steady growth in the business, which includes wine-tasting on the property.

(Lebowitz) “We thought it could work, and be a win-win situation, in that it could help keep land open and working and actually be a profitable ag project.”

(McCrea) As cars pour in to South Hero on a summer morning, John Roy heads out for a day of haying. By all accounts, people are working to set a balance that preserves their rural way of life and accommodates the increasing desire to live and build homes here. Senator Dick Mazza says it’s a work in progress:

(Mazza) “In a fast growing community there’s issues that come about that you have to deal with. Ah, I think that’s gonna be tough for them.”

(McCrea) Mazza says the community is working together, and doing the best it can to manage growth in the future.

For Vermont Public Radio, this is Lynne McCrea.

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