Friday, September 19, 2014

Sprawl and quality of life in northern Vermont

A daily fitness walk route into and through the village of Essex Junction includes a hilly street named “Woods End” (the apostrophe is missing on the street sign). It’s truth in advertising because the landscape at the top of this street, where it transitions into Briar Lane, is indeed the “end of the woods.”
They’ve all been cleared, save for a few tiny woodlots. The reason? To make way for a new sprawl subdivision named “Village Walks.” The irony? Residents of Village Walks aren’t very likely to walk for groceries or anything else related to being consumers and members of society. But they are extremely likely to drive their personal motor vehicles; and not just to commute to workplaces, but for all the chores of daily life.
Sprawl practically mandates the use of cars. And it reinforces our ongoing proclivity to destroy wild nature, while sprawl itself ruins what at least some folks claim is their reason for moving into exurbia in the first place.
To be fair, it’s not just Essex Junction or even the wider stretch of land called Chittenden County. The sprawl machine is churning out more single-family homes this very minute. Sprawl, because of its reliance on the private automobile, also entails paving over the natural land, and that, in turn, means more storm water tainted with pollutants entering the watershed. In this case that’s Lake Champlain.
As was documented in the field work leading up to publication of The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Vermont, the fragmentation and outright loss of the natural landscape leads to population declines of Vermont’s native birds. It’s hard now to find Vermont’s state bird, the Hermit Thrush, nesting anywhere in the town of Essex.
More than that, though, the sprawl machine diminishes the natural heritage of Vermont – the heritage the older generation should be caring for on behalf of generations to come.
Someone has to pay for the services demanded by new development, and that burden goes to the people who already live in a municipality. Think new schools, new teachers, more school buses, police and fire protection, the sewer lines, street construction and maintenance, more street lights, more power lines, the public library, etc.
And because sprawl demands the use of cars, its carbon footprint is sizeable and ever-growing. That relates to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into our atmosphere by a single household, or neighborhood, or municipality, etc.
As the sprawl machine leapfrogs from yesteryear’s development to this year’s, everyone’s quality of life is harmed: Noise pollution, diminished water quality and loss of outdoor recreational opportunities like favorite fishing holes and hiking trails.
Yes, we’re all deserving of good homes, both for ourselves and our children. But shouldn’t we get people into the many existing houses now on the real estate for-sell lists before wrecking more of our natural countryside?
“Sprawl is expensive. It costs more money to pave a road and connect a sewer line to five families each living a block apart on wooded lots than to build public infrastructure for those same five families living in a condo. It costs more money (and takes more time and gas) to serve those families with garbage trucks, fire engines, and ambulances. And in return . . . those five sprawling single-family homes likely yield less in tax revenue per acre than the apartment building that could house our fictitious residents downtown,” writer Emily Badger states in her “Quantifying the Cost of Sprawl” article for the CityLab Web site (
It’s not difficult to determine whether a neighborhood falls under the heading of “sprawl.” Take a look at it how friendly it is to the wonderful pastime and transportation choice of walking. There’s a Web site,, that’ll help you do just that.
My own neighborhood (I’m off route 2A just south of the highway’s bridge over the Winooski River) has a pretty weak rating of 31 out of 100. And next to my home’s score are the words, “Most errands require a car.” That’s true for a bunch of things: Shopping for groceries, getting a haircut, visiting the dentist and family doctor, picking up prescription meds. Walking to the closest grocery can be done. It takes an hour or so, as I discovered a few days ago, and some of the hike involves walking on the highway shoulder (not good).
Homes in the neighborhood along Kiln Road (a new street at the top of Woods End) score even weaker than mine. The tag line for the address number I typed into the search engine is 18 (almost all errands require a car).
Not all sprawl development scores so low. The Finney Crossing project across Williston Road from the Maple Tree Plaza shopping district has a walk score of 69 (Some errands can be accomplished on foot). But the housing project is chewing up former farm land.
CityLab again: “Sprawl may not be a four-letter word, but to many people it might as well be. You can include in that group the researchers at Smart Growth America, the national nonprofit coalition that advocates for ‘smart’ development in U.S. metro areas—i.e., cities and towns with neighborhoods where people can walk or bike or use mass transit to get things done, rather than driving everywhere.”

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