In This State: A banker with a conscience makes his mark safeguarding Vermont’s landscape

John Ewing. Photo by Tom Slayton

John Ewing. Photo by Tom Slayton

Editor’s note: This week’s In This State column is by Tom Slayton, a Montpelier freelance writer and editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.

BURLINGTON – When John Ewing came to Vermont as a young lawyer in 1956, the University of Vermont’s back yard was farmland, and the site of the Sheraton Hotel on Williston Road was a dairy farm.

Today, Route 2 in South Burlington is a 5-mile commercial strip, a sprawling array of gas stations, fast food outlets, motels and shops that goes all the way from UVM to the huge complex of big box stores at once rural Taft Corners in Williston.

Much of what drew Ewing to Burlington from northeastern Pennsylvania a half century ago has obviously changed.

Yet much of Vermont’s uniqueness  — away from the bright lights and traffic jams of South Burlington – survives. And although he has escaped the limelight, on purpose, John Ewing has for decades been a force in preserving the essence of Vermont.

He is, as one acquaintance has said, “a banker with a conscience.”

The forces of change are still at work, and Ewing, now 80, is still working to protect the Vermont he fell in love with.

“Vermont is still Vermont,” he said in a recent interview. “But there’s always going to be a struggle to keep it.”

The young attorney John Ewing arrived in that earlier, more rural Chittenden County looking for a job. He quickly found one with a local law firm, and subsequently had a successful career in legal work and banking. From 1972 to 1995, he was general counsel, vice president, secretary, and finally president of the Bank of Vermont.

That would seem to be enough for any man. Yet it is likely that Ewing will be longer remembered for his other career: as an advocate for the Vermont environment.

For more than 40 years he has worked effectively, often in unpaid, volunteer positions for causes ranging from the Vermont Audubon Society to the Vermont Forum on Sprawl (later Smart Growth Vermont), which he founded. There are few aspects of Vermont environmentalism that he has not been involved in.

Last fall that lifetime of environmental activism was recognized when the Vermont Natural Resources Council presented Ewing with the prestigious Art Gibb Award. VNRC Executive Director Brian Shupe said, in announcing the award: “John Ewing has helped us all understand the vast social and environmental costs of scattered, low-density development and the need to develop better models for Vermont. He also has an unusual talent for working with a wide variety of people and developing consensus.”

Ewing’s home sits perched above a sweeping bend of the Winooski River, just downstream from the Winooski Valley Park District, which he helped establish, some 40 years ago.

Burlington’s busy North End is not far away. But the river flows quietly along, much as it has for the past few millennia. It’s a tranquil, almost rural view.

The Winooski Valley Park District was one of the first projects he worked on, back in the 1960s as attorney for the Vermont Audubon Society. Development was already growing outward from Burlington, suburbanizing the lower Winooski Valley.

Ewing and UVM professor Fred Sargent became concerned that several important natural areas along the river would be lost, and began meeting with others who were similarly concerned. Today, the park district manages 16 parks in seven Chittenden County towns. Much of the lower Winooski remains naturally unspoiled.

Ewing was an early supporter of the Vermont Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, working with both Hub Vogelmann, a founder of the Vermont chapter, and Robert Klein, its first and current executive director. He also helped found the Lake Champlain Land Trust, to help conserve environmentally sensitive islands in the lake. He wrote an important section of Act 250 that banned development above 2,500 feet. And he has served on the boards of many environmental organizations – perhaps most loyally, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, of which he was a member and staunch defender for 14 years.

“John is a banker with a conscience,” says Klein. “He was always helpful and always right there.

“He’s very modest,” Klein adds, “but not at all shy about going after something and making it happen.”

During the 1960s and ‘70s, Ewing’s law practice focused on municipal planning and zoning. He began representing several of the towns around Burlington as they developed town plans. “Always,” he noted, “with a mind toward some of the conservation elements.”

That work gave him knowledge of the development pressures that were shaping towns across Chittenden County. The experience would serve him well later, when, with Elizabeth Humstone, he established the Vermont Forum on Sprawl, which aimed to stem the growth of development in rural areas around Vermont’s small cities.

Although the battle to stop sprawl in South Burlington was largely lost, the organization is credited by environmentalists with helping to pass legislation encouraging growth in downtowns instead of open countryside.

“John understood and helped us understand the importance of maintaining the Vermont brand by preserving and enhancing the vitality of Vermont’s small cities and villages,” says Elizabeth Courtney, former executive director of VNRC. “His understanding of the connection between the economy and the environment, his love for this little state, and his quiet activism are lasting gifts to the Green Mountain State.”

Ewing’s current concerns? Ridgetop wind towers, a huge development complex planned for the Northeast Kingdom, and his continued crusade to convince Vermont’s movers and shakers that the environment and the economy do not have to be at odds, that they are, in fact, complementary.

“I don’t think it’s jobs against conservation,” he said. “You can grow, but in a way that respects the culture and the landscape of Vermont.”

The struggle is a reality, and Ewing remains on the front lines.

The latest hot environmental fight in Vermont is probably over industrial-scale wind towers on mountaintops, notably the 21 towers atop the Lowell range.

“I’m really opposed to huge wind towers in Vermont,” Ewing said. “Vermont doesn’t need them. They’re miniscule in terms of solving the problem. Georgia Mountain (in Chittenden County) might be a good site. But the Northeast Kingdom – terrible!”

It was typical of his approach that despite his own strong feelings on the subject, in 2012 he convened a group of environmental leaders from around the state, who called for a state commission to help resolve the issue in a reasoned way. Gov. Peter Shumlin’s appointment of a special siting commission, which is now meeting, was a result of the group’s work.

“Collaboration instead of fighting is what I prefer,” Ewing said.

Despite the immense pressures for change and unplanned development, Ewing is guardedly hopeful about the future of Vermont.

“I don’t think it (Vermont) has been lost. But, boy, it’s always touch and go,” he said, looking out at the snow-covered Winooski River.

“It doesn’t take long to fall in love with Vermont,” he added. “Everything I’ve done since my earliest years here has been motivated by the fact that I just love this state.”

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