We need zoning for the Vermont that we are

Our look should be protected — but so should the possibility of at least being able to rent, if not buy, a place to live

CHESTER — All that state Rep. Seth Bongartz (D-Manchester) and his colleagues are doing is facing the fact that lovely Vermont just isn’t what it thinks it is anymore.

The bill they’re proposing to enable housing development by banning single-family zoning and allowing duplexes and even three-and-four-unit homes in some municipalities just makes sense.

A couple of decades ago I began to understand what Vermont had become.

Driving from our Weathersfield house to a friend’s place a few miles down the Center Road, I found myself thinking how great country living was as I passed generally modest homes set far apart from each other, with lots of trees and brambles and brooks in between.

It couldn’t get any better.

Then something else occurred to me. For the first time since we’d moved to Vermont some years before, I began to think about where the people who lived in those houses worked: some in Springfield, Windsor, and Claremont a half-dozen miles away; a few farther away, in Brattleboro or Ludlow, or, increasingly, in Lebanon and Hanover.

That’s when I realized a simple fact: I didn’t really live in the country. Vermont wasn’t rural. It was just another set of suburbs with big lawns.

A few people actually lived off the land, like the Woods on Center Road and the McDermotts down the hill. But most of us drove to work in the morning, some of us nearby, others quite a distance away. Almost none of us lived a truly rural existence.

Sure, some of us raised laying hens and even a pig or milk cow, and grew and preserved lots of vegetables, but our lives — where we worked and bought our food and clothes and such — were not much different from the lives my wife and I had lived in the Maryland suburb we’d moved from, or the Connecticut one the Harrises up the hill had left. Even multigenerational Vermonters like the Stoodleys down the hill and Joe Dodge just up Jarvis Road left home every morning for their work.

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My wife and I left Vermont for a while in 2005, but moved back, to Chester, a few years ago. None of my new neighbors runs a dairy farm or relies on the sugar maples on their property for a living here, either.

Every morning, everybody gets in a car (or pickup) and goes to work.

I get it that we love the look of Vermont. All those white-clapboarded houses and open fields, all those trees and brooks. They’re lovely.

And they should be protected.

But so should the possibility of at least being able to rent, if not buy, a place to live. And the simple fact of the matter is that, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, if we’re to house those who’ll need to live in Vermont in 2030, 40,000 new housing units must be built.

That’s a lot of houses and apartments.

If we don’t allow more residences on smaller parcels, we’ll never make it. If we don’t make it, there’ll be no place for all those people to live, the ones who would drive to the restaurants and antique shops, fire departments and nursing homes, hardware stores and supermarkets that’ll be necessary to take care of Vermonters’ needs — our needs.

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Lots of people and organizations are generally on board with Bongartz’s efforts, as many are with the concomitant need to reform Act 250.

Given how long it takes to go from having an idea about what and where to build, to slapping on that last coat of paint, we’d better get started on all this pretty soon.

Sure, Vermont may not end up looking quite so country. But at least the people who’ll be needed to make it work will have places to live.

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