hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial September 2017



Smart growth, red herrings and a town’s climate plan


In the great cacophony of our democratic system, it’s hardly unusual to hear claims of backroom deals, hidden agendas and all sorts of shenanigans aimed at subverting the public good for private or political gain. Sometimes these claims even turn out to be true.

But sometimes public servants with pure motives wind up being unfairly tarred by those who are inclined to see conspiracies where none exist.

It’s worth remembering all of this while reading this month’s cover story, which focuses on a new planning initiative in Pownal, the town that forms Vermont’s southwestern corner.

Since May, a group of local citizens, guided by the nonprofit Vermont Council on Rural Development, has been discussing ways for Pownal to prepare for the economic shifts that could result from climate change. The planning effort, which supporters are calling Empower Pownal, has the blessing of the town Select Board and so far drawn participation from dozens of Pownal residents.

But a group of opponents using the name SOS Pownal has been organizing online and showing up at Empower Pownal’s meetings to question the project’s assumptions and goals. That is their right, of course, and the planning effort ought to welcome a wide range of voices – even those who say no plan is needed.

There are already signs, though, that the two sides in Pownal aren’t hearing each other too well.
In our new era of media balkanization, people increasingly seek out news and information sources that reinforce their own ideological biases. And these days, a lot of online news sources seem designed more to inflame than to inform.

It appears some members of SOS Pownal, in particular, are relying on sources more devoted to ideological consistency than to facts. The group’s members have characterized planning for climate change as kind of big-government conspiracy to force “smart growth” onto their town. And the Web site of SOS Pownal features some wildly distorted claims about what that would mean.

Smart growth, as the group correctly says, involves focusing development in town and city centers to create walkable communities and discourage sprawl. It certainly does not mean, as one poster on the SOS Pownal site claims, “ripping people out of their homes and off their land and stuffing them into stack-and-pack housing that is predetermined by an outside entity.”
This claim is utterly contrary to the history and values of New Urbanism, the movement that gave rise to smart-growth planning. New Urbanism is descended from the work of Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” upended the field of urban planning. Jacobs was a hero to libertarian conservatives and liberals alike, because she fought against a whole series of actual big-government efforts to tear people from their homes in the Urban Renewal era – most famously a proposal to raze a large swath of lower Manhattan to clear the path for a highway.

For the record, smart growth is a strategy for guiding future development; it doesn’t force anyone to do anything. And while a compact development pattern might be a good idea if fuel costs rise, none of the goals under discussion by Empower Pownal would accomplish this.
So here are a couple of suggestions, going forward, for supporters and opponents of Pownal’s planning project. First, each side ought to treat the other with respect and accept that, while they may disagree, they all want what’s best for the town. Second, the members of SOS Pownal ought to leave their conspiracy theories at the door.


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