I sat down recently and read a book about Vermont that was written more than 25 years ago, and in an odd way it gave me hope for the Chesapeake region and our ability to deal with growth and change.
Now I know that some of you are saying, “But, Vermont is different,” and to some extent you are right. The small towns, bucolic ways and tourism-based economy seem to have little relevance to our large metropolitan areas, sprawling suburbs and regional shopping centers. Yet 60 percent of our watershed remains forested, and 30 percent more is farmland. From the point of view of the Bay, we are still a mostly rural landscape. And even if its rural character is threatened, the Bay can’t tell, because it cannot see ahead like we can.
At any rate, my point is this: Today, we think of Vermont as a place that has it together, an ecosystem that works. There is economic prosperity, environmental protection and a strong sense of community in the cities, town and villages. Downtowns serve their traditional role, and when you leave town, you are in the country. We can be easily lulled into thinking that there must have always been an underlying Yankee confidence and sureness of purpose that has made all this so.
What this 25-year-old book shows is that this is not the case. In fact, there was a long struggle over what to do about the impacts of growth and development. During this time, people were almost fearful and had little confidence that they could control the forces of change. There was almost a sense of hopelessness about the inevitable, and hardly a clue what to do about it.
This is important for us to understand as Marylanders try to define “Smart Growth,” as Virginians try to work things out within the county level under constraints set by the legislature, and as Pennsylvanians debate the roles of local and county governments in long-range planning. Often, the solutions seem beyond us, and the destinies of our communities seem in the hands of other, more powerful interests. The lesson of Vermont is that there is a way out — that you can think it through, deal with the underlying values, resolve the conflicts, reach consensus and then carry it out.
“Vermont: A Special World” was published in 1969. But it shows how the first expressions of concern about the impact of growth and change in Vermont go back almost 70 years. In 1929, in a speech to the Rotary Club in Rutland, Sinclair Lewis stated some very modern views: “It requires education and culture to appreciate a quiet place, but any fool can appreciate noise. Florida was ruined by that mania. It must not happen in Vermont.” He continued with a comment that could apply to the Chesapeake today. “You have the priceless heritages — old houses that must not be torn down, beauty that must not be defiled, roads that must not be cluttered with billboards and hotdog stands. You are the guardians — and you are fortunate to have the honor of that task instead of being the hornblowers.”
Decades later, David Reisman, in “Faces in the Crowd,” continued the lament: “The small towns are having a struggle for a place in the sun. Their people will find it hard to maintain their traditional independence if they become enmeshed in the cogs of rural suburbia; but unless they gear themselves to the complex economic apparatus of the 20th Century, they cannot subsist. This is the problem.”
This sense of the inevitable carries forward to many of the contemporary views in the book. “We may still have time,” says Samuel R. Ogden, “But I’m afraid that the thing which Vermont represents to many a badgered human is a state of being which has already been rejected by deliberate decision of mankind.” And Wallace Stegner concludes, “ I will tell you what you already know. It is coming here and you can’t escape it. Vermont will have its turn after a long, quiet sleep; ... it is in real danger of succumbing, as other regions have done.” These are voices of fear and hopelessness.
But what emerged from these and other alarms was a response. Vermonters decided to do something. They passed new laws; revamped the traditional sense of local responsibility for what is allowed to happen; accepted a degree of state oversight; talked out difficult concepts like scale and landscape and appropriateness; and decided they really did want to keep their town centers and countryside intact. Twenty-five years later, the results are self-evident. There is a palpable sense that communities are truly sustainable — a feel that life for the next generation will not only remain as good, but get even better, from the point of view of the community, the economy and the environment.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that the same cannot be done for the Chesapeake region. We have great natural resources like the Bay itself. We have an informed public that knows the importance of healthy streams and farms and forests to the Bay. And it is also a public increasingly disillusioned with sprawl, congestion and loss of open space. There are better ways, and unlike Vermonters back then, we are not clueless about the alternatives available to us. It is possible to have development that works for the Bay and for all of its communities.
There is real hope in the pages of this book from just a quarter century in our past.
Bill Matuszeski is director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.