MONTPELIER, Vt. — For more than a decade, development policy in Vermont has focused on building in already developed village and town centers, leaving surrounding forests and farmland open. But there’s a problem, pointed up by the remnants of Hurricane Irene: Most village and town centers are in flood plains.
Officials discussed the feasibility of shifting development policy, including the possibility of moving business centers to higher elevations or encouraging growth there, but concluded the state should stick with current practices for several reasons.
Focusing development in already developed areas not only preserves open land, but also helps fight climate change by making communities easier to navigate on bicycle and on foot and by shortening commutes, policymakers say. Legislation in the past decade, influential environmental groups and the recently adopted state energy plan all make that point.
“Clearly there’s a conflict between trying to concentrate our growth in our traditional growth centers, which are all in the flood plain, except possibly Killington, on the one hand and trying to protect against future flooding events on the other,” said Karen Horn, a lobbyist with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
But responding to a draft of the energy plan last month, Horn alluded to Irene when she wrote, “While encouragement for development in thickly settled areas is desirable at the state and the local level, a number of issues still need to be considered, such as the newly reinforced reality that most of our downtowns and village centers are in areas prone to flooding.”
And Lawrence Miller, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said he and other senior state officials had had “serious conversations” in the months since Irene about whether development policy needs to be retooled.
But he and Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, both said in interviews that they and other senior officials had concluded that a change in policy wasn’t in the cards.
Vermont’s cities and towns, some of them more than 2 centuries old, have grown up on riverbanks because rivers — and roads built along their banks through mountain gaps — have been the state’s historic transportation corridors. It would be prohibitively expensive, for instance, to move downtown Montpelier to the hillside park that overlooks the city while turning its downtown into parkland.
“We have so much infrastructure and development in these places, relocating whole towns isn’t really a solution,” Miller said. “And if you put stuff on hillsides, you create other hydraulic problems.”
Markowitz said leaving current forests and fields as they are actually is key to minimizing floods. The roofs and parking lots that come with new development do not absorb water the way fields and forests do. The result is heavier runoff when rains do come.
She also said that concentrating development in downtowns makes it easier to protect those developed areas from flooding. Montpelier sits at the confluence of the Winooski and North Branch rivers, whose banks have been built up and fortified through much of the downtown.
“You look down into the river and there are big walls on either side,” she said. “The water will get pretty high, but we manage it so that it’s unlikely to crest over those walls. You can’t do that up and down the whole river” both because of what that would cost and because doing so “creates a channel where the water is forced to go faster, like a fire hose.”
Instead, open, undeveloped areas upstream and downstream from the city help to absorb the river’s energy during times of high water, Markowitz said.
Horn said these arguments made sense to her, but added that she hopes local officials have a strong say in development decisions. “It’s going to be different in every instance. Rochester may decide to do something very different from what Plymouth or Ludlow decide to do.”