By John McClaughry
Among economist Thomas Sowell’s many memorable observations is this one: “Liberty is the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves, and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’”
That observation has been particularly relevant to efforts in Vermont on two long past occasions, and to one just emerging. In all three instances at issue is the liberty to live in the backwoods, beyond the asphalt roads, bringing in firewood for the long winters, and teaching self-reliance to their children to help them become sturdy and true Vermonters.
The first instance began in 1935, when officers of the New Deal Resettlement Administration arrived in the Vermont Statehouse with a generous deal. As then Speaker of the House, and later Governor and Senator, George Aiken recalled it, Vermont would turn over half the state — submarginal lands inhabited by people of inadequate mental capacity – to the federal government. “Miles of road would be abandoned, relieving the State and towns of the necessity of keeping them repaired. Schools would be abandoned, saving more expense.” The feds would lease the lands back to the State, “which would never again permit any of this land to be occupied as homes.”
The Vermont legislators politely told the Resettlement Administration to go back to Washington and not come back.
Fast forward to 1970. The people and their legislature were rightly concerned about waves of development overrunning the capacities of small Vermont towns. They enacted Act 250, imposing ten permit criteria for larger developments. But the Act also called for a State Land Use Plan, which would determine the correct use of every acre of the state.
The plan proposed by the Environmental Board’s experts in 1972 designated vast areas of rural Vermont as “conservation only.” After four years of bitter controversy and tumultuous public meetings, the last watered–down version of the Plan disappeared. In 1984 the legislature repealed the requirement that there even be a State Land Use Plan.
Today, thanks to the exertions of the Vermont Climate Council, comes a third attempt to get Vermonters out of the rural areas. The rationale: fighting “climate change.”
The VCC’s Climate Action Plan is aimed at “rural sprawl” that causes ‘fragmentation of intact forests, loss of agricultural land, an increase in cars and trucks on Vermont roadways and an increase in traffic, congestion, and emissions associated with vehicle travel, and a decline in community cohesion, among other negative impacts.” Or so their Plan asserts.
The Council‘s solution: “support the development of a statewide land use planning policy and implementation plan that guides development to growth areas, town centers, and appropriate rural locations, and limits the development within ecologically sensitive/riskprone areas.”
The statement issued by Gov. Scott’s eight appointees, including VCC chair Kristin Clouser, opposes state land use planning and objects to “a state-wide goal of ‘no net loss’ of natural and working lands, without the foundational building block: a clear definition of ‘natural lands. Absent a functional definition of ‘natural lands,’ the majority recommendation is overly broad, and overlooks how a ‘no net loss’ goal is to be reconciled with the pressing needs to construct more housing and more renewable energy generation identified elsewhere in the plan. The goal as presently articulated leaves little room for economic development in the rural parts of Vermont, where such activity is desperately needed.”
Council member Sean Brown, Gov. Scott’s Commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, issued this dire warning for rural Vermonters: “When you say ‘no net loss of open land or working land’ that hits rural Vermont. When you talk about ‘no new development’ and focusing it [development] in downtowns, that hits rural Vermont. Transportation changes in this plan are going to hit rural Vermonters hard. Every part of this plan is going to hit rural Vermont, which is already economically disadvantaged in many ways.”
As I see it, what this comes down to is this: people who live out in rural areas are sort of a public nuisance, when the (supposed) global climate emergency demands that CO2 emissions be dramatically reduced through, among many other things, pushing or pulling people into favored compact settlements; and we need a State Land Use Plan to restrict the liberty of Vermonters to live where they choose to.
We’ve been down that road twice before, and liberty won out.
George Aiken explained it best in Speaking from Vermont (1938): “Why do folks live in the hills? …The reason is that some folks just naturally love the mountains, and like to be up there among them where freedom of thought and action is logical and inherent.”
Once again, Vermont’s country people need to be protected against “the raging presumptions of their betters.”
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.