From the Director, Summer 2019 - When Growth Comes, Where Will It Go?

Chris Campany"To plan development so as to maintain the historic settlement pattern of compact village and urban centers separated by rural countryside." It's the primary planning goal established by Vermont statute, and it's repeated as a goal in the Windham Regional Plan and town plans. But when growth comes, is that what your town planning work will deliver? Will the policies of your town plan, and bylaws (if your town has them), result in your plan's stated goals and objectives? Have you tested them to see what settlement patterns are supported and discouraged?

Now you may be asking: what growth? It's true that we're not seeing much growth at present. Most of what we have seen relates to resort plans. But what is true today may not be the case in 5, 10 or 15 years. Will communities in close proximity to I-91 become exurban destinations for Massachusetts commuters (Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines an exurb is a region or settlement that lies outside a city and usually beyond its suburbs and that often is inhabited chiefly by well-to-do families). Will expanded passenger rail service to Greenfield eventually become commuter rail? As coastal communities in New England explore "managed retreat" in the face of rising sea level, what will that mean for interior New England? Will northern New England become more attractive as other regions of the nation become less inhabitable?

These are a lot of "what ifs." But the time to investigate the intended and unintended effects of your town's planning tools is when a community is not feeling pressure. While we all do our best to look ahead with the best information we have and plan accordingly, I've learned to expect the unexpected. I've lived in two places that experienced rapid, unexpected growth. The first is Orange County, New York, where I served as Deputy Commissioner of Planning after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Being within the commuting sphere of New York and its related metro area, Orange County saw a surge of growth that rippled into neighboring Sullivan and Ulster Counties. This caught rural communities in particular by surprise. While I didn't live in Baton Rouge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that area - urban and rural communities alike - saw a surge of growth as did Houston, Texas. It's not easy to predict what effects large-scale disasters will have on settlement patterns in the near and long-term. What would a hurricane the scale of that which struck New England in 1938 mean for interior New England in the present day?

In Calvert County, Maryland, where I served as Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning, we focused on directing growth into compact town centers as the county became an exurban destination for commuters to the D.C, Baltimore and Annapolis metro areas. What I learned there, and earlier living in northern Virginia and later living in New York, is that commuters will tolerate long commutes to housing they deem affordable in places they like to live. When I worked in Washington, D.C. in the early 90's I was surprised that a colleague was commuting by train from West Virginia and then biking to the office. That's now common practice for thousands of commuters daily.

I'm not proposing that the Windham Region is destined to be a hub of exurban growth or the destination for resettlement in the event of a major coastal storm, but the fact is we don't know. What is certain is that it's better to have policies in place before growth comes than trying to chase after it once it arrives. That's the hardest time to do planning. With that in mind, I suggest our region's town planning commissions take a look at what your plans say about what should be developed and what should be conserved, and then consider whether or not your policies and bylaws do what the plan says they should do. We'll be doing a similar review of the Windham Regional Plan as part of its next update.

Last Updated: 17 September 2019
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