The Rule of Privilege in South Burlington

When I picture South Burlington in my mind’s eye, I see the curb-to-curb traffic of Shelburne and Williston Roads, the shopping malls, the big parking lots, the land-gobbling subdivisions. I don’t usually think of the area pictured above — the southeastern part of SoBu, which is on the precipice of transformation from countryside to suburbia.

The area in that image is less than two miles wide, but a majority of South Burlington City Council lives comfortably within that frame. Three of the five councilors live within a mile of each other, and only one lives outside the city’s southeastern census tract.

Which explains why the letters section of VTDigger has recently been flooded by councilors and their allies slagging S.100, the bill that would ease regulatory restrictions on housing construction. The issue is literally at their front doors. The sprawl is oozing like The Blob around them, and they want to keep whatever power they have over the process.

It was little more than a year ago that South Burlington City Council voted to block development in large swaths of — you guessed it — the southeastern quadrant.

Council President Helen Riehle argued in favor of the move, calling it “vital” to have “some open space” in South Burlington. Riehle lives in an impressive suburban pile surrounded, for now, by relatively open space. Of course she wants to keep it that way, and of course she doesn’t want the state butting in.

The 2022 city election was dominated by this issue. Two incumbents who voted with Riehle to form a 3-2 majority were returned to council. In the 2023 election, the two councilors who voted “no” on the issue, Matt Cota and state Sen. Tom Chittenden, did not seek re-election. The two winners, Andrew Chalnick and Tyler Barnes, are both residents of the southeastern quadrant.

South Burlington doesn’t have a ward system. All its councilors are elected city-wide. That makes it possible to elect an unrepresentative majority. What makes it worse is the money. As The Other Paper reported last week, 60% the campaign cash in this year’s municipal elections came from the southeastern census tract, where only 22% of the city’s people live.

But that’s where the money is. The southeastern tract is one of the most affluent in the state, with a per capita income of $62,760 and a median household income of $142,417. City-wide, the per capita income is $49,384 and the median household income is $83,750. (The figures for the entire state are $37,903 and $67,674.)

The city’s charter commission is pondering a switch to a ward system, but… you can probably smell this coming… if a ward proposal were to emerge, it would go before the same councilors who enjoy outsized influence under the current system. They’d have every incentive to stick with the current system, would they not?

The only councilor not from the southeastern census district is Meaghan Emery, who resides in the Chamberlin neighborhood west of the airport and east of Al’s Frys. But she was a strong proponent of blocking southeastern development, arguing to make South Burlington “a bobcat and fisher town.”

When I read that, I practically laughed out loud. That ship sailed quite a few strip malls and subdivisions ago.

What South Burlington — and the entire Burlington metropolitan area — needs is not a roadblock to development, but a smart regional plan. There is a huge demand for more housing in Chittenden County, and we’ll have to find sensible ways to make it happen. That’s going to require a measure of give-and-take that the good people of Census Tract 33.01 have been able to resist thanks to their outsized influence over city governance.


3 thoughts on “The Rule of Privilege in South Burlington

  1. Chuck Lacy

    This reminds of the situation in Jericho which has a long history of prohibiting housing for low and modest income people. Selectboard members living in the ten acre zone which covers most of Jericho have long prohibited any attached housing in most of town.

    A 60,000 sq/ft single family house is allowed by permit in 99% of the land area of Jericho. That is three times the size of Patrick Gym.

    At the same time, triplexes of any size are a permitted use in just 14% of Jericho.

    With comedic irony the 2020 Town Plan reports a decline in the percentage of residents living in apartments.

    It should be no surprise that Jericho has Vermont’s lowest percentage of children eligible for free and reduced lunch.

    South Burlington is already far ahead of the rich suburban towns in meeting essential housing needs. They allow new housing in at least some of town.

  2. Fubarvt

    Thanks for digging into this. As a Vermonter who does not reside in Chittenden county, I was wondering why the vehemence against S.100. As usual, follow the money and the privilege.


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