It had been a long day at work. I had a pounding headache, the sort of one you get from three or four days of early summer allergic coughing, fluorescent lights, and office air. It was time to ride home. Routine. Off with the office clothes, on with the bike clothes. Ready to do battle through the busiest part of Williston, Vermont during the busiest time of day.
Williston is the often maligned suburb of Utopian Burlington. Williston- the town that caught all the big-box sprawl pressure of the early 1990's and the town whose rapid growth then was foretold by some to spell doom for Burlington's vibrant downtown. I ride through the heart of it every day, past Maple Tree Place, once the proposed site for the largest indoor mall in the state, instead developed after years of legal wrangling into a set of brick buildings with retail and restaurants on their bottom floors and offices above, all surrounding a green with benches and wide sidewalks. I ride across Route 2a to Marshall Avenue, trying to make the very, very short green light there. The state controls the light timing, and the priority is moving cars up and down 2A, not across it, so I am told. Then down the hill past a host of those dreaded big boxes and off into South Burlington.
In my work as a planner for the town of Williston over the last four years, I have come to know these places intimately, from the invisible lines of ownership to the varied interests, deals, plans, master plans and dreams of those who have been involved in its development. What you see on the ground, the streets, the buildings, the open spaces, etc- all of that is what we planners call the "built environment." So many different circumstances have gone into making this part of Williston what it is today.
The "big box" part of Williston is close to a highway exit. It is close to enough people who want to shop there to keep the stores in business. The land there is almost entirely privately owned, meaning that any public control over what happens there must happen via a regulatory system that operates within the bounds of constitutional rights and the limits various laws place upon it. Many of the sites within this part of town were developed after long, drawn out regulatory processes, and sometimes legal battles as well. What you see on the ground there is a result of these processes working themselves out to a final conclusion: buildings and streets and parking lots on the ground.
In my work, I often hear people say something about a new store or building that involves an anonymous, omnipotent "they."
"Why don't "they" put that building somewhere else?"
"Why do "they" need another big-box store in Williston?
"I wish "they" would do something about the traffic."
There is no "they." More accurately, all of us are in some way "they." All together, through participation in Town Meetings, on Planning Commissions, in the decisions we make about where and how we shop, in the decisions we make about where we are going to live and whether it will be close to or far away from where we work, we create the place we live in. That commercial center in Williston is one such place.
A law professor I once knew referred to being a lawyer as having "special glasses you can never take off" that cause you to see the world in a different way. Being a planner is much the same. On that ride I take every day through the center of Williston, I see not just what is there now, but what I know is coming. I know that our revised zoning bylaw will require new sites to incorporate a number of design elements that will help soften this place and make it more pedestrian friendly. We'll see more urban parks, public art, and wide sidewalks. We'll see more mixed-use buildings and, dearest to my cyclist heart, required bike commuter showers and indoor storage in every new commercial building that gets built in town. It's nice to know that if another big-box applicant shows up, they too will have to find a way to meet these requirements. Some days, that thought alone makes my urban commute home more pleasant.
But today, with my fluorescent headache and grumpy mood, I need a longer ride. I turn right out of my office driveway in historic Williston Village instead of left, and immediately have to queue up in the backed traffic heading out of town. Many of the traffic problems in Williston have nothing to do with the town itself. People want the high pay of Burlington and the pee-off-your-back-porch privacy of Richmond and Underhill and points beyond. So they commute by car, and many of them commute through Williston. Remember those special glasses? They mean that I've looked at the traffic studies, and the numbers bear this out. During the busiest times in Williston, it isn't the things in Williston that generate the backup- it's the rural residential sprawl beyond our borders.
Sprawl is such an ugly word. It gets thrown around, and at, Williston a lot. When you see Williston from Interstate 89, as many people do, you look over numerous subdivisions and condominiums and then down into the big box area I ride through every day. That isn't even half of what the town really is. Here's another element of those special glasses: There's a map of the town on the wall of my office, about three feet wide by four feet tall. On that map, I can cover that big-box area with the palm of my hand. If I lean in closer, I can cover most of that high-density residential area with my forearm. The rest of the map, three feet wide by four feet tall, is mostly green.
That's where I'm headed today, the green part of the map. I climb the big hill out of the Village, southbound out over the highway. Mount Mansfield comes into view. Before long I'm going down through a little hollow and then huffing up another hill, past a field of dairy cows so close I could hand them up some grass without getting off my bike. Out here, the zoning requires new subdivisions to set aside three quarters of their land as permanently-protected open space. The law also requires new subdivisions to provide public trail easements and dictates that new homes have to be kept out of parts of the land that are important habitat or viewshed areas.
I take a turn onto a dirt road at one of those properties- a hundred acres or so of pasture where the owner once proposed a new lot that would have plunked a house straight into the middle of the field. For that and other reasons, the project stalled. It wasn't pretty. This guy runs his farm solo, is 50 years old, looks like he's 80, and leaves a smell of cow barn so strong that I know when he's been in the corner store before me when I go in to get my lunchtime cup of coffee. I hope in the future we can work with him to design something that will meet his needs and the needs of the town. His land is beautiful, and it's his only asset.
Mud season is long past. The trees are all leafed out and the road, although dirt, is riding like glass. My headache is gone, and as the land around me turns to shady woods, I'm smiling. There is nothing but the sound of the tires and the whoosh of the north wind above me. The dappled sun plays tricks with the few potholes, so I stay loose. This is Williston, too. By acreage, this is what most of Williston looks like. The whole town is the result of 50 years of conversation:
"Grow here, under the palm of my hand."
"Walkable neighborhoods there, under my forearm."
"The rest of this map, let's try to keep our farms and quiet roads and gorgeous views."
"Let's try to keep those cows and working landscapes."
"Let's make sure our farmers have the flexibility to be diverse enough in their enterprise that they can prosper, too."
A framed newspaper clipping hangs in the front of our office. "Attention Shoppers: Williston is not all mall" it proclaims. In fact, most of it isn't just "all mall." Most of the town is a rural working landscape, a place of natural beauty that enjoys a high level of protection, a place three feet wide by four feet tall, where all of those new people who will live under the palm of my hand can jump on their bikes and ride through, feeling the sun on their faces and hearing the song of their tires on this aromatic dirt road.