From the VTDIGGER on February 19, 2023

Solving the housing crisis doesn’t require destroying small towns

This commentary is by Robert Fireovid, a resident of South Hero.

Pro-development interests are exploiting Vermont’s affordable housing crisis. In addition to not providing an acceptable long-term solution to affordable housing, the Build!-Build!-Build!-In-Rural-Towns craze aims to liquidate much of what makes Vermont’s rural towns unique, scenic, healthy, and beloved by the people who live there. 

Things like peace and quiet, access to natural (“unimproved” in development parlance) woods, streams, or lakes just a short walk from one’s home, views of the Milky Way unblocked by light pollution, very little traffic congestion, and room for home vegetable gardens and chicken coops. 

Significant increases in the number of housing units in rural towns where there are few jobs and scant or no public transportation will result in increased greenhouse gas emissions because the new residents will have to commute to distant employment. 

Alternatively, increasing the number of residents will require more local employers, that then require … more residents, so that ultimately, the small town is no more.

But this destruction of small-town Vermont values and beauty is totally unnecessary. There are much better approaches for increasing the supply of affordable housing. For instance, where excess septic capacity exists, accessory dwelling units are already allowed. H.68 includes a reasonable mandate that duplexes can be built anywhere a single-family home is allowed.

Further, many of the residential units already in Vermont are second homes, and the state can leverage this market to help low- and moderate-income families purchase homes in localities where high-density housing makes sense. 

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser said that the committee she co-chairs would examine how Vermont’s second homes, which often sit vacant for entire seasons, might be taxed at a higher rate. Higher taxes levied on second homes could then be used to subsidize home purchases by first-time, low- and moderate-income homeowners and to help alleviate the homeless problem, created in part by rising real estate values. 

However, using a flawed top-down, one-size-fits-all assumption, some provisions in H.68 would require (1) fourplexes, (2) five or more dwelling units per acre, and (3) buildings that are an additional story higher be allowed in neighborhoods served by public water and sewer.

It seems that some of this bill was written by developers for them to hijack a great deal of control over local zoning. 

Even worse, the state-funded pro-development planning commissions are attacking direct democracy in Vermont. On Feb. 1, the executive director for both the Vermont Association of Planning and Development Agencies and the Northwest Regional Planning Commission encouraged the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Housing to amend its Omnibus Housing Bill (DR 23-0091) to “remove the ability to vote by Australian ballot in rural towns and increase the percentage of voters needed to petition a vote after adoption to 10%.” 

To explain, Vermont law currently gives voters in rural towns where voting for town meetings is done by Australian ballot the legal right to vote on changes in both zoning regulations and new town plans. But now quasi-state agencies, which are supposed to help ensure that local zoning regulations reflect the vision of the citizens in the municipality, want to block citizen oversight into what those regulations say. 

As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Once development occurs, it can’t be undone. And once town-meeting-type direct democracy is taken away, it’s probably gone for good. 

In my hometown of South Hero, much of the landscape is devoted to agriculture. Most residents either work 15 to 20 miles away in Chittenden County or are summertime vacationers. But the state is pushing for high-density housing here, where there are very few jobs and no public transportation. 

Dense development in South Hero and other small towns like it will probably make small towns less attractive to vacationers. As a result, we will miss the opportunity to address Vermont’s need for affordable housing while also preserving rural Vermont as a desirable place to live and visit.