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Stop Sprawl
Solving Sprawl: 1999 Sierra Club Sprawl Report

Community Revitalization Community Revitalization
Preserving History
Affordable Housing
Focus on: Vermont
Rate Your State


VermontFor a state to successfully manage growth it must work to make city centers and existing communities safe, lively and healthy places to live. Some of the states we studied are taking strides in that direction. To tame sprawl, states must invest in their downtowns and inner suburbs. Some state decision-makers are starting to understand that this is part of the equation.

Revitalizing older neighborhoods is the perfect antidote to sprawl. In many cases, older neighborhoods were designed for pedestrian safety and have a scale and style that allows people to meet their everyday needs by walking. States that cherish the resources they have also value the historic properties that give their neighborhoods character and often invest in historic preservation.

States that are doing the best job at revitalizing communities are working to keep financial resources in their city centers. They know that sprawling suburbs siphon taxes to build new water and sewer lines, new schools and roads, and expanded police and fire protection. These costs are not fully paid by the taxes of new residents. Instead, sprawl forces existing residents -- some of them cash-strapped seniors or low-income taxpayers -- to pay higher taxes. Savvy state policy-makers know that when families flee to the countryside, it drives up costs and erodes the city's tax base, forcing cities to raise taxes on remaining taxpayers to pay for city services.

The best states work to keep businesses in population centers, rather than promote sprawling new developments that gobble up open space and encourage flight from our cities. This downward spiral eventually destroys existing communities -- shoppers are pulled from once-thriving locally owned stores and restaurants to large regional malls. Soon, unemployment, lowered property values and fewer investment opportunities add up to a city that has lost its livability.

The states that rate low in this category are failing to invest in their existing communities. Most often, they rely on the standard style cookie-cutter suburban development. Residents must depend on cars for all their trips. Traffic congestion is the norm. Sadly, a sense of community is often lacking.

To rate the states on how they're doing on community revitalization, we used four measurements:

Our first indicator measured the health of urban communities in each state. Using data from the National Priorities Project, a non-profit group that analyzes the local and state level impacts of federal spending decisions, we constructed a measure of how much funding is sent from the federal government to the states to help downtown areas.

This funding -- known as Community Development Block Grants -- is triggered by a formula that includes poverty level, housing-stock quality and the rate of flight from communities of 50,000 or more residents. The National Priorities Project aggregates the data to the state level, which makes for easy comparison of states. In this category, the best sprawl-busting states require less federal money to help with the problems, because their urban areas are faring better than those in need of more aid. Community Development Block Grants themselves are a key tool for revitalizing communities.

Our second measure looked at a state's efforts to provide and preserve adequate housing for its citizens. One of the key causes for urban flight has been referred to as the "broken window" phenomenon. Poorly maintained housing also serves as a deterrent for those considering moving into a community. For this reason, community development advocates tout state housing trust funds as a key tool for keeping communities livable. Trust funds have provided hundreds of millions of dollars for the rehabilitation and construction of low income housing. Thanks to a study by the Housing Trust Fund Project of the Center for Community Change, we were able to include this as a measurement. States that have a housing trust fund received credit. States with a guaranteed funding source received more credit.

Our third measure rated states on their efforts to preserve historic places. Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Trust for Historic Preservation indicate that the best states have passed laws that guarantee funding for community-level preservation programs and offer property owners and others tax incentives if they carry out historic-preservation work. We gave states equal credit for having an established funding source for a historic-preservation program, a state income tax credit for historic-preservation activities, and/or providing property-tax abatement for preserved properties.

Our last measure targeted states' efforts to clean up "brownfields," the abandoned and sometimes polluted urban areas that badly need cleanup and redevelopment. We used data from the Environmental Law Institute, which told us which of the 50 states have established brownfields initiatives. We found that 28 states have formal brownfields programs or informal policies or agreements. Sierra Club experts who work on this issue cautioned us that some state brownfield programs don't provide proper protection from previous pollution.

Preserving History

Historic preservation is of crucial importance to smart-growth advocates. By preserving historic structures, towns and cities can revitalize older areas and preserve the uniqueness of their community. In turn, vibrant downtowns, thriving small towns and places that are worth saving reduce our appetite for outward sprawl and new development. Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, explains the links in more detail below. - Eds.

As new sprawl development pushes relentlessly into the countryside, it erodes the prospects for preserving the economic vitality of our older cities and towns. Historic buildings cannot be saved unless they have users. They will not have users unless the areas in which they are located have an economic pulse. The continued outward expansion of new, sprawl-type development makes it harder to recycle and preserve older buildings in historic downtowns and neighborhoods.

While the newly developing "sprawl-burbs" may experience economic growth, property values in the older parts of the community often fall. Thus sprawl produces economic displacement, not economic growth.

By strewing homes, businesses, and other basic elements of a community randomly across the landscape, sprawl does two things:

First, it forces people to drive everywhere -- even short distances -- to execute the simplest of everyday errands. This excessive auto-dependence means that virtually every building must be surrounded with asphalt to store all the cars now needed. To create so much parking, communities everywhere in the United States have systematically destroyed features that once gave places a unique identity.

Second, sprawl destroys community centers, where people once came together face to face often enough to get to know, and therefore trust, one another. When sprawl scatters the elements of a community hither and yon, forcing us to drive a mile in one direction to fetch groceries, two miles in another to take clothes to the cleaners and four miles in yet another direction to buy stamps, sprawl reduces the likelihood of running into old friends or meeting new people.

When downtowns are revitalized, historic neighborhoods restored and buildings rehabilitated, there is less need to destroy forests to get lumber for new homes. There's less need to pave over farm land. Since most historic downtowns and neighborhoods are very walkable, they provide an alternative to driving when short trips are involved. (At least 25 percent of all trips taken in the United States are under one mile.) The preservation of historic communities offers one way to reduce the environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel emissions of automobiles. Historic preservation is thus a big part of the solution to the problem of sprawl.

This statement was adapted from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 1999 report for the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, "Challenging Sprawl: Organizational Responses to a National Problem."

Taming Sprawl with Affordable Housing

by Miriam Axel-Lute, Associate Director, National Housing Institute

Can housing developers be allies in the fight to control sprawl? Though the idea may seem counterintuitive, community developers have been working for years to stem the flight away from urban centers and existing developed areas.

Over the past few decades, community development corporations (CDCs) have joined the ranks of affordable-housing developers. CDCs are supported both by private foundations and by state and federal governments. They build affordable housing; rehabilitate existing structures; promote improvements in infrastructure, public services and public safety; and provide job training and creation programs.

While the main goal of community developers has always been to alleviate poverty through revitalizing distressed neighborhoods, this approach also has environmental benefits. By stabilizing communities and rehabilitating existing neighborhoods, CDCs create places where people and businesses want to move. Restoring life to "undesirable" areas helps us make better use of our resources and reduces the pressure to develop new areas. CDCs can provide a wealth of experience, grassroots perspectives and connections to the anti-sprawl movement. Community-oriented development and open-space preservation go hand-in-hand.

Outside the inner city, there is also a pressing need for affordable housing -- and a pressing need to reduce sprawl. CDCs are also working to ensure that rural and suburban centers have a fair share of safe and affordable housing. There are many creative approaches to providing these options, including limited-equity cooperatives, community land trusts and legalizing second units in developed areas.

In 1987, a coalition of Vermont conservationists and affordable-housing advocates passed a bill that created the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund. This fund has helped over 10,000 people with affordable housing and saved 165,000 acres of farms and valuable open space. Despite a shifting balance of power between conservationists and builders, an ongoing collaboration between environmental, housing and preservation groups in the state has provided an unshakable political base for the fund, which has been supported by legislatures and governors since its inception.

Focus on Vermont

"In Vermont, we cherish our towns." - Governor Howard Dean

VermontMillions of Americans visit Vermont to enjoy its quaint towns and villages. The citizens of the state protect their communities by ensuring they have healthy downtowns, which nurture civic life and preserve the unique character of the state.

To keep these special places alive, the state's Agency of Commerce and Community Development has created the Vermont Downtown Program. This program builds public-private partnerships that support local businesses, funds physical improvements like landscaping and access for pedestrians, and rehabilitates buildings in need of repair. The program is designed to support many small efforts over time, rather than a few big showcase sites that are often driven by large developers.

Vermont has also been in the forefront of the fight against the "big-box" retailers (like Wal-Mart and K-Mart) that blight so many of America's towns. Though a quarter of a century old and not perfect, Vermont's land-use law regulating large projects -- Act 250 -- has given the state the clout needed to fight the giant chain stores. Environmentalists and state policy-makers have successfully kept the character of their towns intact despite pressure from these mega-stores. In some cases, citizen outrage has kept the stores away entirely. In other cases, stores have tailored their plans to fit Vermont -- building on a smaller scale, or building in redeveloped downtown areas rather than sprawling into open space.

Vermont's policy-makers are also working to keep their government from fueling sprawl. State leaders are currently pushing to keep government facilities, like post offices, in downtown locations instead of letting them migrate outward. They've held Uncle Sam to the same high standard that private companies like Wal-Mart must meet.

Despite its hard work on community revitalization, the Green Mountain State does have challenges to meet. The lack of a statewide land use plan leaves a significant hole in its efforts to tame growth. Sprawl in Chittenden County, fueled by growth in the greater Burlington area, threatens historic villages around Lake Champlain and the water quality of this wonderful lake.

Rate Your State: Community Revitalization

1 Health of Urban Communities
2 Housing Trust Fund
3 Historic Preservation
4 Brownfields
5 Field Expert Input

: very effective
2: moderately effective
3: not effective
Rank State 1 2 3 4 5
1 Vermont 1 1 2 1 2
2 North Carolina 2 1 1 1 3
3 Maryland 3 1 1 1 2
4 Minnesota 3 1 2 1 1
5 Oregon 2 1 2 1 2
6 Georgia 3 1 2 1 2
7 Indiana 3 1 2 1 2
8 Connecticut 3 1 2 1 2
9 Rhode Island 3 2 2 1 1
10 Maine 2 1 2 3 2
11 New Hampshire 1 1 3 1 2
12 Texas 3 1 2 1 2
13 Florida 3 1 2 1 3
14 Mississippi 1 3 2 1 2
15 Arizona 3 1 2 1 3
16 Missouri 3 1 2 1 2
17 New Mexico 2 3 2 1 2
18 West Virginia 2 3 2 1 2
19 Hawaii 2 3 2 1 1
20 Arkansas 2 3 2 1 2
21 Idaho 1 2 3 3 1
22 Alabama 2 3 2 1 2
23 Nevada 3 1 2 3 2
24 Illinois 3 1 2 1 2
25 New Jersey 3 1 2 1 2
26 Montana 1 2 2 3 2
27 Kansas 2 1 2 3 2
28 South Carolina 2 1 2 3 2
29 Oklahoma 2 2 3 1 2
30 Virginia 2 1 2 3 3
31 Washington 3 1 2 3 2
32 Wisconsin 3 3 2 1 2
33 Kentucky 2 1 2 3 2
34 South Dakota 1 3 2 3 2
35 Alaska 2 3 2 3 2
36 Iowa 2 1 2 3 2
37 California 3 1 2 3 2
38 Delaware 3 1 3 1 3
39 Tennessee 2 1 3 3 2
40 Nebraska 2 1 3 3 2
41 New York 3 3 2 1 3
42 Massachusetts 3 3 2 1 2
43 North Dakota 1 3 3 3 2
44 Utah 3 1 2 3 3
45 Colorado 3 3 2 3 2
46 Ohio 3 1 3 3 2
47 Michigan 3 3 2 1 3
48 Wyoming 1 3 3 3 3
49 Pennsylvania 3 3 2 3 2
50 Louisiana 3 3 2 3 2

Introduction | Transportation Planning | Open Space Protection | Community Revitalization | Land Use Planning

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