On May 12, 2021

Vermont’s planning and development needs the hub and spoke model

By Bill Schubart

Editor’s Note: Bill Schubart is the author of nine books of fiction, a former VPR radio commentator, and a regular columnist for VTDigger. He has served on many non-profit boards and several legislative commissions. He grew up in Morrisville and lives in Hinesburg. This commentary is part eight in a 10-part series in which the authors respond to the pressing topics identified in a draft “Proposition for the Future of Vermont” developed by the non-partisan Vermont Council on Rural Development. On May 26-27 it will host a virtual summit at futureofvermont.org.

PART 8:  Vermont must reform regional coordination
and governance and advance efficiency
and foresight in state planning.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD)’s deep dive into the issues facing Vermont is informed by interviews with and input from thousands of Vermonters.

Part 8 is of particular interest to me as I have written about it before.

There are several lenses through which one must view the generation and implementation of public policy in Vermont.

Is it top-down or ground-up?

Is it motivated by ego, privilege, and greed, or by a commitment to the common good?

The significant realms of policy and law are development, environment, equity, healthcare, education, agriculture/food systems, housing, and culture.

Where is public policy generated: in our communities, regionally, or at the state level? Do these three geographical policy incubators support or confound one another?

We’ve all seen top-down mandates succeed. Governor Dean Davis’s billboard law and Act 250 were two examples. Both have survived challenges.

We’ve also seen them fail as in Governor Shumlin’s single-payer healthcare initiative.

Still others, like Act 46, the bill mandating statewide school district mergers, flounder.

I’ve participated in VCRD’s community-level work, all of which is designed to help communities clarify and quantify their problems and then work locally to create and implement solutions.

And I’ve experienced its success firsthand. When Hinesburg’s Saputo Cheese Plant burned and then closed, leaving empty buildings and a brownfield, a team I was a part of came together and within three years had restored the property and generated more jobs than were lost in the closure. Hinesburg had several new businesses, a new restaurant/pub, and more green space.

I’ve also watched as the regional policy authorities in all eight areas try to clarify, implement, and defend their often overlapping roles, policies, and regional plans.

And we’ve all watched Vermont’s executive and legislative branches struggle in their efforts to make law and policy for lack of any central long-term strategic planning.

Sadly, our future initiatives tend to be informed more by our past failures rather than by a prospective, strategic effort, founded in what we know and can reasonably project.

Part 8 challenges us to imagine how we might design a system that neither imposes top-down policies nor stands by as fragmented local or regional initiatives vie for acceptance.

It raises the critical question as to whether we can find a way to honor and integrate local, regional, and state planning to create viable social, economic, environmental  policy?  I believe there is. 

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