Opinion: Boosting downtowns aids environmental goals

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Opinion: Boosting downtowns aids environmental goals

Thu, 06/05/2014 - 6:00am -- tim

by Kate McCarthy, VNRC Vermonters may think of VNRC as primarily an environmental organization: one that supports healthy land, air, water and wildlife, and clean energy. That’s all true – and has been since VNRC was founded over 50 years ago. What many people may not always realize, however, is that we also see our downtowns and villages as an essential part of sustaining Vermont’s environmental values.

In addition to being an important part of our history, heritage, and sense of place, our downtowns and villages give us all more housing options, reduce our reliance on cars, and take development pressure off our rural lands.

That’s why we are pleased with legislation recently signed into law by Governor Shumlin that boosts our downtowns and also curbs wasteful, car-dependent, inefficient strip development outside our downtowns and villages.

In particular, the changes that one of the bills, H.823, makes to Act 250 are going to help reinforce downtown development.

Over time, Act 250 has done a lot of things well, generally helping ensure more environmentally-sensitive project design, for instance. What it hasn’t done is effectively address strip development – the sort of single story, auto-oriented development that chews away at our rural lands and undercuts the health of our downtowns.

This new legislation provides the regional district commissions – those bodies that administer Act 250 – with a way to shape development so that it uses land and infrastructure more efficiently and connects better to existing development. The bill also ensures that when district commissions evaluate the transportation impacts of projects, they consider more than just cars, but also at how new projects help support bicycle, pedestrian, and transit networks – providing much-needed opportunities for people to have a variety of transportation options.

Some have argued that these changes will make it too hard to build businesses in existing strip areas, and that it will halt development in rural areas. This bill isn’t about saying “no” to development. It’s about making sure that when we develop, we use land efficiently, and in a way that doesn’t worsen the strip development we have or create more of it.

We expect these changes will lead to better development outside of our existing settlements. While it is possible that some projects could be rejected under this criterion, that’s not the goal of this bill. Nonetheless, if a proposed project is not reinforcing what we’ve said we want as a state – compact settlement surrounded by rural countryside – it’s appropriate for Act 250 to say so.

H.823 and the other pro-downtown bills passed this year highlight, in a very positive way, the complementary Vermont values of a healthy environment AND healthy downtowns. At VNRC, we are proud to have supported these measures and thank the lawmakers and administration staff who worked so hard to make them a reality.

Kate McCarthy, AICP is the Sustainable Communities Program Director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council.