(Host) Cities and towns along Vermont’s Route 7 corridor have long fought unchecked commercial development and suburban sprawl. They’ve tried to maintain their community identity, their values and their sense of place.
Now, at least one Vermont town hopes it’s found a way. VPR’s Kirk Carapezza reports.
(Carapezza) Take Route 7 south from Burlington during rush-hour and you’ll see how retail development overwhelms much of this car-oriented commercial strip.
(Carapezza) It’s not what you think of when you think: Vermont. In South Burlington, there’s Buffalo Wild Wings and PriceChopper. As you cross the border into Shelburne, there’s the new Kinney Drug Store and the new Tractor Supply Warehouse.
Some folks in town, including Kate Lalley, think those businesses represent exactly the kind of development that Shelburne can no longer afford to rely upon for its tax base.
(Lalley) "I think there’s a sense of powerlessness, like what on Earth can we possibly do about this?"
(Carapezza) Lalley, a local landscape architect, is head of the town’s Sustainable Design Assessment Team. Like many in this bedroom community who enjoy easy access to Shelburne Farms and Lake Champlain, Lalley and her family live just off Route 7.
On a recent afternoon, she slowly pulls her Odyssey Caravan out of her two-car garage and turns onto Route 7.
(Lalley) "I think you’re just in time for one of our famous traffic jams. In Shelburne, we plan our lives around avoiding the Route 7 traffic jams."
(Carapezza) As if on cue, traffic begins to bottleneck at the town green like sand passing through an hour glass.
Town leaders say it doesn’t have to be this way. Last year, Shelburne got a grant from the American Institute of Architects to help transform this clogged corridor into the town’s economic Main Street.
A study by architects at the University of Pennsylvania outlines a new vision for Route 7.
(Lalley) "The assessment showed that we have an opportunity to do things very, very differently and it’s very much to our advantage to reconsider this part of our town."
(Carapezza) The plan calls for pedestrian and bike lanes, and for economic development plans that encourage businesses to locate in the village and not on the outskirts of town.
Shelburne is not alone in its desire to take ownership of Route 7.
In Bennington, citizens last summer circulated a petition to lower the highway’s speed limit from 50 m.p.h. to 40 between the Park Lawn Cemetery and the junction of Carpenter Hill Road. The Select Board then sent a letter to the state.
Transportation Secretary Brian Searles says the state is willing to work with towns through programs that are designed to maintain environmental protections and promote downtowns.
Back in Shelburne village, a sign outside the Flying Pig Bookstore says "We Sell E-Books." Inside, owner Elizabeth Bluemle stamps price tags on packets of hand-crafted stationery.
(Bluemle) "You’re never going to stop progress. I’m not anti-progress, but I do love the feeling of a small town. I think people crave that."
(Carapezza) Bluemle says it’s increasingly important that Shelburne preserve its identity, despite encroaching development.
(Bluemle) When we get tourists in here they love seeing a bookstore, which of course are disappearing by the scores across the country, and I think there’s something very heartening about the pace of a small town."
(Carapezza) Next door, at the old Shelburne Country Store, owner Steve Mayfield admits that town leaders may not be able to turn Route 7 into your typical quaint Main Street, but still he says:
(Mayfield) "As long as they can maintain what it’s always been – being able to walk down the street, have stores right on the sides. If it gets any larger I think that it will start to lose that Vermont feel to it."
(Carapezza) Mayfield fears if Shelburne were to accept any new developments it would detract from his business.
But Kate Lalley thinks development is inevitable. That’s why she says the town has been holding workshops designed to come up with new ideas for smart growth that will support and promote the town’s existing local economy.
(Lalley) "We felt like we were at this critical threshold where we had this last bit of green, pastoral farmland still there. And then we had this encroaching strip that was going ever closer to our village, which right now there’s this kind of buffer of green around it. And we thought, ‘Gosh, you know, this is just at some point going to be undifferentiated strip development if we don’t do something."
(Carapezza) One idea put forth is to adopt so-called form-based zoning codes that aim to achieve a community vision by encouraging development inside the village.
Hammering out such codes may not be sexy, but architects consider it the best approach for communities located up and down Route 7, because they expect land use to keep changing, despite the public will.
For VPR News, I’m Kirk Carapezza.