Civic leaders meet at historic preservation conference

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(Host) When civic leaders from around the state met in Bennington on Friday for this year’s historic preservation conference, the message was all about “scale.”

VPR’s Susan Keese explains:

(Keese) Organizers of the conference had hoped to be celebrating the success of Bennington’s landmark bylaw limiting retail size. But a recent town-wide vote overturned that law, paving the way for a Wal-Mart expansion.

Conference Coordinator Meg Campbell says Bennington planners are working on a new version of the by-law.

(Campbell) “But it’s gotten much bigger than that. It’s about the whole state now.”

(Keese) Just how big the ramifications of retail sprawl are was the topic of the keynote speech by environmental writer Bill McKibben.

McKibben is a visiting faculty member at Middlebury. Much of his work focuses on global warming. McKibben ties the problem to the sheer volume of fossil fuels required by an economic model he considers out of scale with the real world.

(McKibben) “The average bite of food in an American Diet travels fifteen-hundred miles before it reaches your lips.”

(Keese) McKibben asked the audience to temporarily look beyond the aesthetics of big box parking lots and the harm superstore chains may do to downtowns. He asked them to imagine Vermont without maple sugaring, fall foliage or snow. He warned that those things could be gone by the end of this century unless the appetite for gas and oil gets smaller.

One way to do that he says, is to move toward local products and economies, and away from superchains like Wal-Mart. He said superstores almost always leave communities poorer in the end.

(McKibben) “The real point of them is that the scale of commerce of economy into which they then lock us overwhelms everything else that’s going on here. It makes it impossible for economies that have grown up here to ever survive and compete.”

(Keese) McKibben says Vermont is among the few places pushing back against this trend. He praised the creativity of local farmers, entrepreneurs and civic planners working to advance community-based businesses and products.

Emily Wadhams, who also spoke at the conference, is a Vermonter working in Washington with the National Preservation Trust. Wadhams says Vermont is the only state working on legislation to control retail scale.

(Wadhams) “I like the solution that Vermont is looking at, which is imposing a retail cap state wide, but then letting the communities work it out. And what Vermont has realized, because we’re one of the last states to really face this big box retail dilemma and have seen what’s happening to other communities and downtowns around the country, the legislature is trying to give communities time to really think about how they want their communities to develop.”

(Keese) Wadhams says Vermonters want opportunities to buy goods inexpensively. But they also care about their small communities and downtowns.

And she says she’s hopeful that the state will come up with new solutions to prevent the kind of sprawl that other states are trying to undo.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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