Putting Vermont on the drawing board

VERMONT, with the smallest population of any state, has retained much of its charm. Village greens, open pastures, and mountainous terrain are plentiful because the Industrial Revolution lost its intensity as it moved to northern New England. With the exception of some industrialized centers, this state remained rural, sparsely populated, and universally acclaimed for its natural beauty. But today, Vermont is no longer distanced from the trends which characterize New England. With low unemployment rates and a booming economy, it is experiencing a welcome rise in the standard of living. Yet less welcome are the accompanying pressures of growth.

Vermonters are asking themselves the same questions being posed in many other parts of the country: Is it possible to maintain prosperity and also have a livable environment?

The state has begun to frame some answers. If they are workable, they may provide effective strategies for other areas seeking to avoid the undesirable consequences of growth - loss of farmland, traffic jams, air pollution, and a slow loss of community.

One answer is planning.

Act 200, a law passed a few months ago, is designed to provide towns with the resources and the incentives to plan. Vermont towns will be required to join regional planning commissions, and to recognize the impact of their growth on their neighbors.

State planning is not exempt from the process. All planning, whether at the state, regional, or local level, must conform to statewide goals, defined in the law.

The law includes a $22.5 million fund to protect open land and affordable housing, and a program to help Vermont farmers. Both are generous, valiant efforts to keep land open and productive - a tough struggle when real estate agents keep knocking on farmers' doors, asking to buy them out at just about any price. But it is worth trying to save farmland. We targeted some $60 million this year - equal to 10 percent of our total state appropriation - for this effort.

Yet can planning work? Do communities and regions have the ability to determine their future? Can they do so while remaining suspicious of the state's role in the process?

Rural Americans, in general, and Vermonters, in particular, pride themselves on maintaining local control. To some local control means ``Let me do what I please with my land.'' But it should mean a sense of control over one's own destiny. And communities are vulnerable to outside control only if they do not exercise genuine local control beforehand.

The process of managing growth through a grass-roots planning process is beginning here in Vermont. Towns and regions recently received their first planning funds from the state. Larger towns will get as much as $65,000 to hire a planner, while others will get as little as $100. One selectman said he will use the money to hold a town supper and invite everyone to talk about the future. Others will hire a ``circuit rider'' planner, who can serve several small communities.

We want to avoid the moratorium strategy of controlling growth like referendums in California and on Cape Cod may do. We doubt that a ``slow growth'' movement will work.

Can a rural state continue to grow and prosper? If so, can local officials make the tough decisions about that growth? Can the state play a helpful role rather than be a bureaucratic burden?

In most people's minds, ``planning'' and ``free enterprise'' have often been at odds. Planners have traditionally been accused of creating a bureaucratic overlay to stymie healthy growth.

But today, if Vermont and rural America are to continue to have a steady improving standard of living, planning has to become part of our daily economic process. Without it, an end to the economic miracle of this region is predictable.

Madeleine Kunin, governor of Vermont, is seeking her third term.

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