Recently there have been articles and letters written about the controversy in South Burlington between those who want to save the environment and its natural resources, and those who want to pave over it for more housing developments. Most of these don’t address the underlying reasons for the tension: a disagreement over the value of rural land as it relates to environmental stability, and as it relates to housing.
The controversy over land use has existed for decades, but as the amount of rural land diminishes, and South Burlington contemplates re-zoning, those wanting to save rural lands and those wanting to build houses on rural lands have clashed.
Public comments increased three years ago after a hundred people asked the city to stop developments on rural lands. In response, the city enacted interim zoning to have time to identify where the most valuable natural resource lands exist. Studies identified these areas, and then assessed the environmental and economic values to the city from them.
Out of 189 parcels of land that were evaluated, 25 were identified as having the greatest number of natural resources. Other studies identified forest wildlife habitat blocks and assessed the economic value of the eco-services provided by 20 of the top natural resource parcels of land.
It was estimated these 20 parcels provide $5 to $16 million per year in benefits to the city. Underlying the data was the fact that there is little rural land left in South Burlington.
Those advocating for housing on rural lands never mention that there are other areas in the city for housing. These include opportunities to redevelop existing empty commercial structures, as well as areas in the urban core and along transit lines.
A reader might also think that South Burlington is not doing its part in supplying housing for the county. In fact, our city has done more than its share in supplying both market rate and affordable housing.
Similarly, one might conclude that the city has stopped building houses on rural lands. Just the opposite. Most of the single-family houses that have been built in South Burlington over the past decade have been built on rural lands.
The vast amount of this housing came at the expense of natural resource lands. An entire forest was taken down to build houses. All the waterways in the city are now impaired. In addition to the houses already built, there are 1,300 more houses approved, but not yet built.
Moreover, our city has done more than its fair share in building affordable housing. South Burlington contains 13 percent of the population in Chittenden County yet has 23 percent of the county’s affordable housing. By comparison, Essex contains 12 percent of the population and has 19 percent of the county’s affordable housing units.
Sixty-four percent of the homes in South Burlington are affordable. South Burlington was recently rated seventh on a list of the top cities in Vermont with populations over 5,000 as the most affordable cities in which to own a home.
Equally concerning is how some folks characterize those who want to save the land as rich, elite, racist NIMBYs, who mostly want to protect their manicured lawns and views. In reality, many of the people involved in land preservation in South Burlington are far from wealthy, don’t live in the rural areas of the city, and are incredibly inclusive in their attitudes and actions.
Most environmentalists, including those in South Burlington, are motivated by the common good and a sense of responsibility to future generations — not by any personal or financial benefits. In contrast, some of those advocating for housing on rural lands are employed by or associated with housing-related businesses.
Everyone benefits from and survives because of the natural world. We all need rural lands for clean air and water, healthy food, keeping nature in balance and much more. Not only that, but these lands are also critical to helping us withstand climate crisis impacts. Destroying forests, meadows, wetlands and wildlife to put up more housing will benefit a select few but will hurt everyone in the long run.
Vermont’s natural resource lands — and those who fight for them — are under siege by fossil-fuel-associated industries, particularly the housing industry.
South Burlington will soon make decisions that will determine the future of its natural resource lands. Land, and how we use or abuse it, is one of the key factors in climate change. Sacrificing the means of our long-term survival — our natural resources — to satisfy an immediate need —housing — will doom future generations.
Rosanne Greco is a former chair of the South Burlington City Council and a current board member of the South Burlington Land Trust.