The word sprawl can be defined in many ways. Most definitions contain some or all of these elements: Sprawl is a form of low-density development that uses land in a wasteful manner, saps the vitality of traditional downtowns, encourages the use of automobiles, and occurs along highways and in the rural countryside.

The issue of how to control sprawl in Vermont has become an increasingly important question as Vermonters see portions of their state looking more and more like other parts of the nation. Sprawl also has serious environmental consequences. For example, it contributes to air pollution, as Vermonters are driving more to shop and commute. Sprawl also degrades wildlife habitat and contributes to water pollution, as run-off from large parking lots and the roofs of big-box retail stores can stress rivers and streams.

Fortunately, much of Vermont has retained its historic character, marked by small villages surrounded by farmland and working forests. The challenge before us is how we can protect our state’s landscape while retaining a healthy economy.

Sprawl has many causes, but the individual choices we make every day can contribute to the problem.

Consider these one dozen ways you can help fight sprawl in Vermont:

  1. Live close to where you work and shop. Walk or bike to work or, if possible, use public transportation.
  2. Shop downtown to keep your community economically healthy.
  3. Buy from local farmers. One of the surest ways to keep sprawl from spreading in your community is to strengthen the traditional uses of Vermont’s landscape. Farmers’ markets and neighborhood cooperatives help keep land open and can provide you with healthy, locally grown food.
  4. Support local loggers and the state’s wood products industry. If we support Vermont’s wood products manufacturers who use sustainable forest practices, we help conserve and propagate our state’s forests.
  5. Support your local land trust.
  6. Tell your local legislators that you favor state funding for the purchase of development rights on farmland and other innovative ways to preserve open space.
  7. If you’re thinking about building a home in the country, remember the hidden costs of longer drives to work, school, and the homes of friends. Living in a village setting can save you money and hundreds of hours of driving time over the course of years, as well as reduce your impacts on the environment.
  8. Remember that building in woodlands where there hasn’t been a house before may harm some wildlife species. Suburbanization often leads to the disappearance of predators such as bobcats, which will result in an increase in the local raccoon and skunk populations. The populations of less-visible species, such as reptiles and amphibians, may also decline due to new development in outlying areas.
  9. Serve on a local planning commission and participate in the revision of your town plan.
  10. Support the revision of local zoning ordinances and state regulations to reduce sprawl.
  11. Remember how sprawl can increase local property taxes as growth in undeveloped areas of your community often requires new sewer lines and more road maintenance.
  12. Support incentives to locate new government buildings, including schools and post offices, in existing villages and to use existing buildings when possible.

To learn more about sprawl, contact the Vermont Forum on Sprawl at (802) 864-6310. Or visit their Web site at www.vtsprawl.org.