Category Archives: Land use

The costs of undevelopment

Sunday’s Burlington Free Press brought us a lengthy cover story about artists in the Pine Street corridor, and their fear of potential gentrification in the area.

The Pine Street corridor is a delightful, funky mix of startups, small businesses, a few larger businesses, food enterprises, art studios, and various creative types. Hipster’s paradise.

It owes its existence to a historical quirk in zoning. As the Free Press’ Molly Walsh reports:

New residential development is prohibited along parts of Pine Street under city zoning rules going back several decades. The rules were created to preserve space for industrial and commercial uses in a 225-acre Enterprise Zone that encompasses much of Burlington’s historic manufacturing section…

Today major industry has largely moved out of the area. In its place art studios, offices and smaller-scale makers of everything from bread to beer to jewelry have sprung up along with start-ups and more established business such as Lake Champlain Chocolates.

That Enterprise Zone has had the unintended consequence of keeping rent artificially low, making it possible for this Creatives’ Colony to develop. The worm in the apple: the corridor would be an ideal place to develop more housing, which Burlington needs badly. But if the zoning were changed to allow housing, propertly values would go up. And rents. And many current tenants of the old industrial buildings would be priced out.

Of course, if you leave the zoning intact, every resident of Burlington is subsidizing the Colony through inflated costs for housing and property taxes.

So the question: is that a tradeoff worth making? If you live in Burlington, are you willing to underwrite the artists and entrepreneurs, and forego the property tax revenue and easing of housing demand?

This is a question that usually goes unasked when we consider development ideas. We see the potential costs (financial, social, environmental) of a proposal, but we don’t as easily see the costs of not developing.

Same question applies to the land formerly owned by Burlington College. The easy question is, “Do we want to preserve it as open space?’ The harder questions are, “Do we all want to subsidize that space through higher property taxes?” and “If we don’t want development there, where are we willing to allow it?” Because we can’t say “no” to everything. We can’t turn Burlington — or Vermont — into a Colonial Williamsburg, frozen in time like a beetle in amber.

Walsh interviewed quite a few Pine Street artists. Frankly, some of them seem a little whiny and entitled. One, for example, acknowledged the need for more housing but asked, “‘Why here?’ is my question. Does it have to be here?”

Well, no, it doesn’t HAVE to be there. But, given the fact that more people want to live in Burlington, it has to be somewhere. If not in the South End, if not on the former Burlington College land, then where? More suburban sprawl in Williston and Essex? (You want to see bad development? Drive a few miles north from I-89 Exit 12, past the endless and growing expanses of strip malls and subdivisions in Williston and Essex.)

If Burlington says “no” to any significant upgrade in housing stock, who does it hurt most? The low- and middle-income people who’ll be priced out of the city, and the environment of the outlying areas, where development pressure will grow.

I hope there will be a reasonable compromise on Pine Street, relaxing the strictures of the Enterprise Zone or trimming its borders. Personally, I’d like to see the Pine Street Corridor retain its character — but I’d also like to see more housing that would make use of existing infrastructure and give residents a short commute by car, bike, or bus to downtown (or Pine Street) jobs.

Overall, I’d like more attention to be paid to the hidden costs of undevelopment. It’s possible to do this intelligently, allowing desirable development while retaining our character.

Advertisements

Well, here’s another good idea we’ll never hear again

Earlier this week, State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued a report suggesting that the state is getting shorted on leases of public lands to ski areas. The long-term leases were negotiated in the Good Old Days, when ski areas were not much more than trails, lifts, and lodges. And they reflect that; lease payments are based on lift ticket sales.

Simpler times.

Simpler times.

Today, ski areas are ski resorts — with myriad amenities and all-season activities. Lift tickets are a small part of the whole. You could argue that that’s because of investments by private-sector operators; you could also say that none of it would exist without the public lands. The AP’s Wilson Ring put it this way:

The [Auditor’s] report says that inflation-adjusted lease payments to the state declined by 14 percent between 2003 and 2013, but property near the ski areas increased in value by about 150 percent, and meals, alcohol and room taxes have increased by between 40 percent and 61 percent.

Parker Riehle of the Vermont Ski Areas Association scrambled to justify his industry’s bargain-basement leases.

“The better that those sales are and the better that the ski rates are on state land the better that the lease payments are to the state,” Riehle said.

Is he really trying to tell us that rock-bottom leases are more lucrative for the state than reasonably-priced ones? Like the supply-side assertion that lowering taxes will increase revenue? How well does that work, Sam Brownback?

Of course, Riehle was reaching deep into the bottom of his rhetorical barrel; he also claims that the leases have led to the preservation of land and wildlife.

Yes, big expensive resports are nirvana for the ecosystem.

Hoffer doesn’t necessarily recommend trying to reopen the leases; he just wanted to provide information and raise the question.

It’s a very good question, with the state’s budget circumstances so tight that Gov. Shumlin has proposed leasing prison space to the feds (which will keep more state inmates in out-of-state for-profit prisons) and placing a three-year moratorium on the Current Use program, among many other things, to generate new revenue. His administration is effectively searching all the sofa cushions for spare change.

Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that Hoffer’s report will be quietly shelved. Michael Snyder, Vermont’s Parks and Recreation commissioner, says the state’s hands are tied until the leases expire.

That strikes me as an awfully defeatist attitude. The state does hold the ultimate hammer — it’s our land, after all — and could force the ski resorts to reopen the deals if it wanted to.

Of course, ski resort operators (Bill Stenger, come on down!) are very well-connected people with top-shelf representation at the Statehouse and deep pockets for campaign contributions. I can just hear Our Lawmakers issuing heartfelt paeans to One Of Vermont’s Iconic Industries, a Bedrock of Our Vital Tourism Sector, and pooh-poohing any talk of Reneging On Agreements Made In Good Faith.

Too bad, ’cause if Shumlin’s budget is any indicator, we could really use the money. The resort industry has it to spare. And I’d say we deserve a fair return for the use of public property.

But naah, it ain’t happening. Better luck with your next report, Doug.

Yep, Ruth Dwyer’s still a colossal jerk

Remember Ruth Dwyer? The arch-conservative Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1998 and 2000? (Lost both times to Howard Dean.) The staunch opponent of civil unions and sourpuss leader of “Take Back Vermont”?

She’s still around, living in Thetford, and she’s at least as much of a jerk now as she was then.

Neighbors' house in foreground. "Curtain" and Dwyer's house are way in the background.

Neighbors’ house in foreground. “Curtain” and Dwyer’s house are way in the background. Photo from the Valley News.

As the Valley News reports*, Dwyer took exception when a neighboring hayfield was bought by someone who then built a house. Her calm, measured response: she built a huge fence blocking the new house from her view because the new house “offends her sensibilities.”

*The Valley News is paywalled, but if you register (for free), you can read up to five stories per month.

By “huge fence” I mean 60 feet wide and 24 feet high. Basically, a billboard in a rural residential neighborhood. She never sought a building permit.

Thetford zoning officials, meanwhile, have determined the structure — forest-green shade cloth strung across five large wooden utility poles along Sawnee Bean Road — is a “wall” and therefore out of compliance until it goes through a permitting process, which is now underway.

She claims that the structure is merely a temporary “curtain” that will come down as soon as the 68 young cedar trees she’s planted are tall enough to provide a privacy screen. (Sixty-eight trees? She’s planting a damn forest on her front lawn.) Cedars apparently grow a foot to a foot and a half per year. So with any luck that “temporary curtain” will only be there for a couple decades, more or less.  Why the fuss?

Dwyer makes a variety of arguments, ranging from the illogical to the insane. What it boils down to is, “she doesn’t want a neighbor.”

Also, she claims an absolute right to do what she likes on her property, but she doesn’t want her neighbors to exercise the same rights.

Her complaints include the aesthetics of the house. Which, as you can see from the Valley News photo, is functional and plain but not especially ugly.

She also “lamented her neighbors’ habit of mowing the lawn during the warmer months.”

“Mowing the lawn!” Well, I never! What’s next — hanging laundry or putting up a swingset?

She also professes to be bothered “by the glow of [the neighbors’] flatscreen TV.” Now, look at that photo again, and try to gauge the distance between the two houses. (Bearing in mind the “curtain” is 60 feet wide.) She’d practically need a telescope to see the glow of a TV set.

Finally, she complains of increased traffic on her rural road. As if one stinkin’ house is generating noticeable traffic.

The ironic thing, like rain on your wedding day, is that Dwyer is screeching her head off about her property rights being infringed upon by Thetford authorities, while she seems to want absolute control over what happens on neighboring property.

David Mears seems like a nice guy

DEC Commissioner David Mears was on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show this morning, mostly talking Lake Champlain cleanup. I’ve been, shall we say, somewhat critical of the Shumlin administration’s response to Champlain’s deteriorating water quality (recent post was entitled “At this rate, Lake Champlain will be cleaned up about the time the sun goes nova and the Earth becomes a cold, dead husk,” which I guess could be taken as critical). So I wanted to hear what he had to say.

The face of earnest concern.

The face of earnest concern.

And a lot of it sounded reasonable. He does, however, have a problem: the cynicism of people like me is based on decades of neglect and delay by multiple administrations — and the bare fact that the current Powers That Be are being forced to act by the feds. So pardon us if we don’t accept bland assurances at face value.

First, he made an important correction. Many news outlets reported (and I echoed the reports) that the Shumlin administration had proposed new levies on “impervious development” and agricultural fertilizers that would raise about $1 million per year for Champlain mitigation. Which is a drop in the bucket.

Well, according to Mears, the $1 million figure was a “for example” number, and the administration actually intendes to set the levies at rates that would produce $4 million to $6 million per year. Mears describes this as “seed money.” And while it still seems rather small, it’s a lot bigger than I thought. (See note at end of this post.)

Overall, Mears made a good case for the administration’s dedication to the issue. And at one point he said, “We’re used to fighting on this issue” in a way that seemed to lay the adversarial blame on both sides.

To which I’d point out that the last two administrations, at least, have been dragged kicking and screaming into taking any action whatsoever. The Conservation Law Foundation’s lawsuit against the state, for violating the Clean Water Act regarding Lake Champlain, was first filed in 2008. And that came after years of diligent efforts to convince state government to live up to its responsibilities without an expensive court battle. So if “we’re used to fighting,” it’s not because the environmental community is feeling a bit stroppy — it’s because they’ve been consistently stonewalled by state  government. There’s been little or no cooperation, at least as far as we can tell in public.

When such obstructionism is practiced by a Republican government, we’re disappointed but not terribly surprised. When it’s done by a Democratic administration that professes to hold a strong environmental ethic, it seems like a betrayal of shared ideals. And it’s the plain truth that the current administration has slow-played the issue to a crawl, even as Champlain’s quality continues to degrade.

Mears’ presentation fell short in some key areas. When Johnson (who did an excellent job holding Mears’ feet to the fire, by the way) asked about items like Ag Secretary Chuck Ross’ decision not to mandate “best practices” for farms near Mississquoi Bay and the potential laying of a natural gas pipeline under the lake, Mears ducked the questions, saying it wasn’t his responsibility.

Well, yes. But as Johnson pointed out, Lake Champlain is his responsibility. We should expect him to be fully informed on issues that affect water quality even if they’re not primarily in his bailiwick.

I came away from the interview with a greater appreciation for the nuances of the issue, and for the administration’s interest in addressing it. But there’s a whole lot of history to overcome regarding Lake Champlain — and regarding the administration’s often-slippery relationship with the truth.

In short, telling me about your plans and dedication isn’t enough. You’ve got to show me.

 

Postscript. In the interview, Mears noted that he’d been in contact with reporters to correct initial reporting that proposed levies on fertilizers and “impervious development” would raise $1 million per year, rather than the administration’s target of $4 million to $6 million per year. 

Well, Mr. Commissioner, nobody ever contacted me. I realize that I don’t know everything about state government, and my ignorance sometimes results in errors. I am always open to correcting any errors in the most transparent way possible. But rarely, if ever, do I get feedback from the administration. (Generally speaking, I get more feedback from Republicans than Democrats.) Now, I’m not as high on the pecking order as your established media, but I would rather be corrected than allow a mistake to remain in place. I may be a partisan blogger, but I do have a sense of responsibility. 

Scott Milne borrowed a bucket, and he’s going to clean up Lake Champlain

The ever-constipated Campaign of Ideas has pooped out another rock-hard nugget… this time, by way of emailed press release without any live contact with reporters.

And no wonder. Even Mahatma has to realize this one’s a clunker.

It’s a two-part plan to clean up Lake Champlain.

I repeat: “two-part.”

And part one is:

Catalyze the cleanup of Lake Champlain without raising new revenue.

Yes, part one is nothing more than a restatement of the overall idea.

Step two is even worse: he wants to raid an existing fund to pay for a tiny fraction of cleanup costs:

Amend the “Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund Act” to allocate the part of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s funds used for conservation to cleaning up Lake Champlain.

(Bold type is Milne’s.)

I've got just the idea for you! Low mileage, runs good, new battery & tires. Don't mind the rust.

I’ve got just the plan for you! Low mileage, runs good, new battery & tires. Don’t mind the rust.

The appendix to part two is renaming VHCB as the “Vermont Housing and Lake Champlain Cleanup Trust.”

And that’s it. That’s his entire Lake Champlain cleanup “plan.”

Okay, a couple of small problems right off the bat.

This would strip VHCB of its ability to do any other conservation work: conserving farmland through the purchase of development rights; helping preserve natural areas, historic properties, wildlife habitat; purchasing land for new parks and wildlife areas; and helping provide public access to conserved land.

— It would provide, by Milne’s own estimate, a measly $7.4 million per year for a cleanup that’s estimated to cost $150 million. In the absence of a comprehensive plan, that money won’t have much impact.

Milne isn’t bothered by robbing VHCB to pay for the lake; indeed, he says there’s no need for VHCB to do any conservation:

Milne said more than half of Vermont’s land is either owned by the state or federal government, or under some sort of easement that prohibits development today.

“I say half of our state being set aside is good enough for the next five years,” according to Milne. “Let’s have this board and these dollars go towards affordable housing and cleaning up the Lake.

Hmm. He thinks there’s more than enough conserved land in Vermont. And this is the same guy who wants to suburbanize a chunk of land off I-89 in Hartford. And who has said he’d like Vermont to take a more New Hampshire-style approach to conservation and development.

Which makes me suspect that Milne wouldn’t like to see any new regulations on farmland or developed areas or wastewater treatment.

Oh, I forgot another small problem with the plan: There’s no way in Hell the feds would buy it. And we’re under pressure from the EPA to do some real substantive stuff. This ain’t it.

I think I see why he slipped this one over the transom and avoided interacting with the media. Even by Milne’s standards, this idea is a real clunker.

(Note: As of this writing, Milne hadn’t posted the plan on his website. I’m sure he’ll think of it sometime.)

 

A modest entreaty to our conservation groups

Okay, here I go again, disappointing some of my lefty friends. My request:

Please don’t pursue the Burlington College land. Let the sale to a developer go through, and find another use for the $7 million you’d need to block the sale.

The news kinda got lost in the IBM/GlobalFoundries shuffle and resultant flood of Republican petulance, but Burlington College announced Monday that it would sell most of its 32-acre lakefront property to a real estate developer, who would build a mix of affordable, senior, and market-rate housing. The College desperately needs the money to get out of debt and give itself a fighting chance at survival.

The deal includes a 60-day window for preservation groups to match the purchase price and keep the land from being developed.

And I’m begging you, please don’t.

Look, I realize this is Vermont and we’re going to be inundated by earnest calls to Keep This Land Pristine and Save It For Our Children. But sorry, I’m not on board.

Vermont needs more housing. A recent report by the Champlain Housing Trust and Housing Vermont shows that a lack of housing stock is driving purchase prices and rental rates upward, making housing unaffordable for many. The high price of housing is also a drag on the economy: the report says the housing crunch hurts businesses trying to recruit workers into Vermont. Which we need, to kickstart our stagnant economy and bring more kids into our under-populated schools.

And for the sake of the environment, we especially need new housing in our cities and towns. We don’t need more sprawl, particularly in Chittenden County, which already suffers from the effects of sprawl. Infill housing is good for our environmental footprint.

Every chance for a new development brings a value judgment. Do we want to preserve the land, or do we think the benefits of a development outweigh the preservation interest?

The best answer depends on the specifics of an individual project. But bear in mind: Every time we opt for preservation, we lose property taxes, we keep housing prices high, we make it harder for people to move to Vermont, and we encourage sprawl.

So please. Go ahead and raise $7 million. But use it for something that’s a clear environmental plus, instead of the usual kneejerk reaction against a project that would actually do some good things.

Oh, so THAT’S where all our gunk is going

The recent blue-green algae bloom that caused a shutdown of the public water system in Toledo, Ohio has brought overdue public attention to our own algae troubles in Lake Champlain. (With an undertone of sneering about the industrial Midwest’s environmental stewardship.) Various media outlets have asked the musical question, “Could it happen here?” And they’ve dutifully reported the bland reassurances of local officials and the warning cries from advocacy groups.

But one media outlet took a unique step, and discovered that hell yes, it’s already happening here.

Or near here, anyway. In last week’s edition of Seven Days, Kathryn Flagg surveyed the landscape for traces of blue-green… and her search took her to the upper end of the lake – over the border in Quebec.

Though drinking water from Lake Champlain on this side of the border has never tested positive for the toxins associated with blue-green algae, some Québec residents routinely receive notices that their water is not safe to drink.

… “I’ve lived in Bedford since 2004, and it happens every summer,” said Aleksandra Drizo, a research fellow at the University of Vermont…

Wow, I thought to myself. That’s really bad. A lot worse than Toledo, right?

And then I thought, Wait a minute. Doesn’t Lake Champlain flow north?

Flagg’s article didn’t say, but another story in Seven Days confirmed my thought.

So… our gunk is poisoning their water.

Which ought to make us clean, natural and green Vermonters ashamed and embarrassed. We’re exporting our environmental damage. And because our gunk is (at least partly) flowing northward, we don’t suffer the consequences.

That’s appalling. And it’s one more sign that Vermont’s pure-green reputation isn’t nearly as deserved as we like to think.