Saturday, October 27, 2001
The Rutland Herald

A step forward

October 27, 2001

At the forum on growth and the environment in Rutland on Thursday, Carl Spangler from the American Skiing Co. was talking about the mistakes developers often make. He said that on environmental issues they cause many of their own problems by going about the process in the wrong way.

Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, was seated next to him, nodding as he spoke.

The forum, sponsored by the Rutland Economic Development Corp., brought together people with divergent interests but with a common goal of finding a way to work together. REDC made an important contribution in recognizing that the community as a whole is best able to make progress by fostering understanding among diverse groups.

The forum was a sign that the environmental movement and society’s understanding of that movement are maturing. In its early stages the environmental movement was a desperate reaction against the vast, often destructive changes that had overtaken the nation during the first half of the 20th century. Industrialization and suburbanization had poisoned our air and waters, chewed up our forests and swallowed vast tracts of farmland. Highway builders had destroyed whole neighborhoods. Historic buildings and downtown districts in cities large and small had fallen to the wrecking ball.

The American people reacted with horror to these changes, which were so extreme it would have been strange if an environmental movement had not emerged. Now, after half a century, the battles between development and the environment are a commonplace.

REDC’s forum was a sign that those promoting economic development in the Rutland region understand that development must occur within a landscape that reflects the values of the community as a whole. According to the old model, a business might seek to bulldoze its way through the permit process, trying to outwit and outspend any environmental group that might get in the way. REDC is looking for a better way.

REDC itself came in for criticism from Smith Thursday night for backing projects in the Danby region without first hearing what Danby residents might have to say. REDC’s customary effort to help business people in the initial stages of their projects opened up the organization to that charge. William Shutkin, the urban planning professor from MIT who was moderating the panel, asked if there were steps that could be taken to avoid the mode of confrontation into which projects so frequently fall.

At the government level, the permit process is designed to ensure projects meet environmental standards. But the permit process is designed as an arena for conflict. It is the place people go to fight a project. It would seem the community dialogue REDC and others hope to foster ought to take place before a project reaches that stage.

The Rutland Region Planning Commission has a role in outlining regional goals in the form of a regional plan. But by law the authority of the commission is limited.

In suggesting a new mode of dialogue, REDC may have put itself in line for the job of promoting understanding. What if REDC itself established an ombudsman whose goal was to help business people hear from and understand the full range of concerns of the community? This would be a service outside the official permit process that went beyond business promotion. It would be community promotion. Businesses that thought it was important to become better acquainted with the community might find the service useful.

It is often the case that communities do not become fully aware of a project until it has already entered the permit process. At that point, a project often appears as a fait accompli, and battle lines are quickly drawn. A REDC ombudsman might help to create community understanding before daggers are drawn.

For example, an ombudsman might have been able to connect officials from OMYA Inc. with residents of Danby even before OMYA’s quarry had become an official proposal. A business might conclude from such contacts that opposition was too fierce and that it would be stymied if it chose to proceed. It might choose to proceed anyway in the hope of winning over the opposition. In the end, the outcome might not be all that different, except that greater understanding at the outset might lead to solutions rather than deadlock.

It took American Skiing Co. and local environmentalists nearly 10 years to accept the fact that neither was going to go away. It is apparent to the Rutland business community that both sides of the equation — the economy and the environment — are here to stay. One hopes the forum on Thursday leads to continuing steps to honor both for the sake of the community as a whole.