Cows and condos -- a new rapport in Vermont's Mad River Valley

In the Mad River Valley, condominium owners and farmers are learning to live side by side.

The pungent smell of the valley's dairy farms almost reaches the sleek ski villages that dot the hillsides. Here in thick forests of the Green Mountains are the hills that provide some of the East Coast's finest skiing. But residents have been afraid that a serene way of life would be sacrificed for gaudy commercialism - commercialism that swirls around what is likely to become the largest ski area in the United States.

In the more rural exurbs of big cities, such as Chicago and Boston, rapid economic development often has threatened a pastoral way of life and has been resented and resisted.

But in Mad River Valley, a series of in-depth studies and public discussions sponsored by community planning groups have brokered a partnership between the old and new. The farmers and the ski firms have learned that they need each other.

The 14 studies on local growth and development, while costing $14,000, have poured a hefty dose of public input into plotting the valley's future.

''Some of the antagonism was defused,'' says Nancy Graff, the Vermont Council on the Humanities ''humanist-in-residence'' who helped run the forums. ''I'm not sure the discussions changed the course of history, but they helped us all to understand that course.''

Growth boosters began to see that farming was the anchor for the pastoral texture of the valley, says Jeff Squires, director of the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission. Farmers and other locals who have seen the valley transform since the ski boom hit in the 1960s began to admit that tourism is a key industry.

From the start, the ski industry has helped lift the three valley towns from the economic doldrums, says Donald Swain, the first Mad River Valley planning project director.

Now the valley is about to become the site of the biggest ski area in the US, according to Roy Cohen of Sugarbush Valley Inc.

A report on the environmental impact of ambitious plans to expand the Sugarbush ski areas is soon to be released by the US Forest Service. The study is expected to confirm Ms. Graff's point that the forums promoted understanding but didn't slow the change too much. Sugarbush is expected to be given the go-ahead on its plan to build more ski villages, trails, and lifts. In 20 years, the number of skiers on the valley's slopes is expected to double.

Still, Mr. Squires says condos and second homes are the cleanest industry around. And natives benefit from the taxes chipped in by the new landowners, even though they make few demands on city services.

But Graff says, ''The feeling gets to be more suburban than Vermont-y. You don't know your neighbors anymore because many of them are only there on the weekends, and they rent the house out the rest of the time.''

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