Elmer: Douglas administration has lack of respect for legacy of Vermont’s land use stewardship

Editor’s note: This opinion piece is by Peg Elmer, who has served as a professional planner in Vermont for more than 30 years at the local and regional levels. She has worked with four different governors and served for 10 years, under both Governors Dean and Douglas, as the planning director in the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. She is currently associate director of the Land Use Institute at the Vermont Law School.  These comments are hers, not an opinion of the law school. The following is a portion of testimony provided the House Commerce Committee regarding the Challenge for Change proposal on April 6, 2010.

We inherited a legacy – a philosophy of stewardship of Vermont’s landscape which was laid out in statute by previous Legislatures and implemented by the administrations that have preceded that of Gov. Douglas.

The current administration’s disrespect for planning is demonstrated again by the last minute/ad hoc inclusion of the regional planning commission and municipal planning grant funding in the Unified Economic Development Budget proposal.

Land use planning is intended to occur at three levels: state, regional and local. There is no state level planning happening currently in Vermont, which is unusual among states we like to compare ourselves to.  Step back from this fray for a moment and think about how Vermont is pictured, from the perspective of the rest of the world — never mind this country.

Vermont Law School is a success – the leading environmental law school in the country – in part because of its location.  We hear from parents and students about the draw of Vermont – the influence it has, far beyond its tiny size, by being known as a place where care for its land, communities and people is understood to be a priority.  That draw contributes in a large way to our economic future!  What is happening to this legacy in the thinly veiled policy re-direction “requiring” the rewriting of statutes occurring as part of this short term budget chaos?

The strength of planning in Vermont is at the regional levels, and that was intended because regional planning best supports the volunteer network at the local level that is making the land use decisions affecting generations to come. Those decisions need to take into consideration social, environmental and economic considerations.  A planning tenet is that, if any one of those three E’s: social equity, environmental or economic sustainability are focused on to the exclusion of balance with the other two, then community health – whether the state or municipal community – begins to fall apart.

The irony is that, while there are a number of required elements that regional planning commissions and municipal planning commissions are to address in their activities, economic development strategy has never been one of them.  It has been recommended, repeatedly, that this be added as a provision to statute, and it should be. Especially if they are to be targeted and expected to bear more than their fair share of cost cutting as part of the state economic development budget.

They are probably included because, although not a required responsibility, the regional planning commissions have been remarkably effective in bringing key federal programs and funding to Vermont’s communities, in the absence of effective state planning and coordination of those same programs, and in helping drive regional economic development strategies.  Brownfield and hazard mitigation funding are both examples in which the commissions have led the state in gaining those funds, rather than the other way around.

Without providing any other alternative, this proposal would disrupt and possibly cripple an effective delivery mechanism. The regional planning commissions have asked for time to provide recommendations and a more functional analysis, along with their economic development partners, and that should be honored.

The proposal is that regional planning commissions would be combined as part of regional service centers made up primarily of organizations that derive from an economic development mandate, but the commissions have a large breadth of statutory responsibilities that go far beyond that.  They have made excellent recommendations to design how those services can be combined and are well-positioned to take a lead role in setting up any new structure, as the creatures of their municipal members that they are, organized around public participation and facilitation, and having the larger umbrella of statutory responsibilities far beyond economic development.

Another irony our decision-makers should be aware of is that the regional planning commissions and regional development corporations were required to coordinate with the regional marketing organizations during the Dean administration, in order to gain their state funding.  The consolidated work plan concept took years to get in place, was a disaster for a number of smaller regional chambers of commerce and never worked in some regions.  The irony is that, after all the work of forced collaboration, the Douglas administration allowed that to lapse, and now it re-emerges as if a bright new concept.  If it were such a success in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, wouldn’t it have continued, maybe on its own?  It took time and pain, did not stay in place, and was not built upon to include the additional economic service providers.

It is odd that the most creative, dynamic sources of innovation, public participation and vision in the economic development realm are among those most targeted in the Challenge proposal. It’s the Vermont Council on Rural Development, in the absence of other state level planning, which has conducted statewide visioning and moved to find creative solutions. It’s the Sustainable Jobs Fund which is currently deep into the task given them by the Legislature last spring – to study the impact of agriculture and food systems on Vermont’s economy and develop recommendations.  Examples provided of their early work indicate the project is enormously involved and creative, and will have major ramifications.  Vermont is in the lead nationally in this work and this effort will capitalize on that.

The Challenge proposal suggests cutting both of these organizations’ modest appropriations entirely?!!  How will what we are proposing to do here help Vermont prepare for our economic future?

We are being asked for suggestions on where to find the necessary cuts. Why isn’t there a similar level of cutting of marketing, such as the general fund appropriation for the Vermont Ski Areas Association, when it has been shown that the diminished marketing dollars in other jurisdictions has not affected outcomes?  The web links on effective tourism web pages are key but expensive media advertising at this time seems wasteful.

To avoid the inclusion of policy maneuvers, which will have far-reaching ramifications for the future of our state, in what was meant to be a budgetary solution, please make the pain equitable, and keep statutory provisions in place, so Vermont can revive its stewardship of communities as soon as we’re able.


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