Opinion: Housing, forestland big priorities

This week’s writer is Amy Sheldon, a consulting natural resource planner and one of Middlebury’s two state representatives in the Vermont House. She serves on the Fish, Wildlife and Water Committee.
As Vermonters we know we have a high quality of life. It may mean something slightly different to each one of us but when we get down to the essence of it, the one thing that links all of us is our love of our landscape and the relationship of our communities to our landscape. What you may not know is that while we in Vermont are experiencing modest economic growth and a relatively stable population, the large areas of forested land that are the foundation of our quality of life are threatened.
Last session the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation presented to the public, by way of the standing natural resource committees in the House and Senate, a report on the state of Vermont’s forests. This report is readable and contains important details on the status of our forests (it can be found online by searching “forest fragmentation report Vermont”). The biggest finding for all of us to consider is that for the first time since we have been keeping track, we are seeing a decrease in the amount of forested land statewide.
Forests provide the ballast to our economy and our environment and we ignore any loss of this resource at our peril. Forests pump $1.4 billion into the state’s bottom line directly through the forest products industry and millions more indirectly through tourism and recreation. Forests are also critical to the health and resilience of our communities. They store and absorb carbon; slow and store rain and snow melt, lessening the impact of flooding; recharge aquifers, providing us with clean groundwater; provide habitat for other species that live here with us; and give us space for spiritual renewal.
If the amount of forestland is declining in the face of near-zero population growth and the modest economic growth of the past few years, what will be its fate if we achieve greater economic growth and, as the forest fragmentation report states, 84,000 new people move here by 2030?
Despite progress defining growth centers in many of our towns, both commercial and residential development is still occurring throughout the landscape. This happens for a number of reasons, including that it can be easier and less expensive to develop outside of our downtowns. There are, of course, personal reasons people develop where they do — but we can find ways to ensure that people who want to live and work in town can do so affordably.
Many businesses and organizations report that the lack of available work-force housing is one of their biggest threats. Again, there are a number of drivers that make work-force housing a challenge but communities that find creative ways to provide access to reasonably priced housing within walking distance to downtown and jobs will be at a competitive advantage and will reduce the demand for housing in outlying areas.
In addition to development pressure, all of Vermont’s working lands are facing a demographic challenge that if not addressed will further fragment our landscape. The average age of farm and forest landowners is nearing retirement. Many of these people will need or want to divest of their resource as they stop working their land. We need to develop transition plans to facilitate the transfer of working lands to the next generation of farmers and forest landowners.
The challenge before us is to build on our unique strengths while respecting and maintaining our natural resource base. With this in mind, I am the lead sponsor on a bill that requires regional and town plans to identify contiguous forestlands and important wildlife habitat areas and to recommend specific policies to support the forest industry and control development in those areas to prevent forest fragmentation. On the flip side, I am a co-sponsor on Bristol Rep. Fred Baser’s bill that proposes to fund two pilot work-force housing projects in designated neighborhoods. I see these issues as two sides of the same coin: if we can come together regionally and in our communities to find creative ways to support our working forests and build housing close to downtowns we can cultivate a vibrant, resilient Vermont economy for all.
I encourage you to visit http://legislature.vermont.gov/ and look up H.789 and H.702. Feel free to be in touch with me at [email protected] if you have questions or ideas. 

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