John Bossange: Core planning in Chittenden County is every community’s responsibility

This commentary is by John Bossange of South Burlington, a retired middle school principal who believes that the climate crisis is real.

With 25% of all Vermonters living in Chittenden County, we urgently need to update our thinking about how we plan for population growth, more housing, commercial development and work locations in light of the climate crisis already upon us, impacting our daily lives. 

Clearly we cannot continue on as we thought we could just 20 years ago. Gone are the days of building clustered developments in open fields, miles from day-to-day amenities. Sprawl has come too easily to Chittenden County, and now we realize we need every square mile of meadow and grasslands, forest canopy and habitat buffers to mitigate the intense weather impacting our lives and worsening every year. 

There is no time to delay, and we must act collectively.

Already our air quality and summer heat domes, algae blooms in our ponds and Lake Champlain, prolonged drought, and intense rainstorms with flash flooding have become a part of our yearly weather cycles. We know we need to preserve shade trees and decrease impervious surfaces to mitigate weeks of stifling heat, and we understand we need more and more trees, grasslands and wetlands for carbon sequestration to offset our use of gasoline-driven cars.

But conserving open space and forests is not the responsibility of just a few towns, as suggested in a recent commentary written in VTDigger. No one community should be the town to sacrifice its open space and forests for development so others can have their open space and forests to enjoy. 

We’ve seen that playbook fail before in other states because it left open the opportunity for more and more sprawl in those open, unpreserved spaces in surrounding towns. All across America, there are entire counties fully developed because no one planned ahead and they are suffering the tragic consequences. What Vermonter wants that?

To prevent a rush of developers moving into surrounding towns, every community in Chittenden County needs to do its part to preserve its open space and natural areas. Only with a town-by-town commitment, a regional plan, will we collectively gain enough climate change impact to make a difference right here in our own county. 

Further, each town deserves its own conserved areas of forests and open space, where residents there can enjoy their natural beauty nearby their homes. Don’t we all deserve to live in livable communities with natural areas nearby? Why should selected communities look like “Everywhere USA”? No one I know moved to Vermont or into Chittenden County to experience sprawl in an asphalt jungle, and having just a few towns losing their natural areas to support tracts of dense housing developments is a terrible economic model for Vermont.

Each town needs to create its own “core” of appropriately zoned land for any proposed housing or commercial development. This way, all towns can deal effectively with an increase in population and the need for housing without selling off tracts of natural space to accommodate such growth. 

Creating a “core” might seem too urban for Vermont, but we’ve all witnessed the growth in Chittenden County, the traffic congestion and cookie-cutter housing developments sprinkled throughout our open fields, built is if it were still the year 2000, when we were not talking about a “Code Red” climate crisis. 

We cannot pretend little has changed from just 20 years ago if we are to sustain a livable, healthy environment, just as we cannot pretend that we will be driving gasoline-powered vehicles 20 years from now. Nor will we be using fossil fuels to heat our homes or provide us with electricity. Our collective carbon footprint must be diminished if we are to find hope beyond the year 2040. 

That's the science speaking, not me. All of the county’s towns need to set the stage for this transition by defining and protecting their own conserved natural spaces and combine that with defining their core housing and commercial development zones. 

Only then, when each town embraces this collective responsibility and takes these two steps, will we begin to mitigate the climate crisis in Chittenden County. For the sake of our children and the generations that will follow them, we have no other choices available.


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