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Planning: Tough questions for the candidates

Below is a reprint of an article in the Burlington Free Press where I  ask Mayoral candidates environmental questions affecting Vermont’s beloved city.

Photo credit: JOEL BANNER BAIRD, Burlington Free Press

Photo credit: JOEL BANNER BAIRD, Burlington Free Press

Burlington is full of dichotomies when it comes to environmental issues. Being the largest city in Vermont, there is not a lot of the natural world left to provide habitat for animals and respite for people.

It is also, however, on the shores of Lake Champlain, which is one of the most important aquatic resources in the Northeast. The Burlington waterfront offers a unique and precious location for locals and visitors to enjoy a world-class waterfront park experience.

Burlington is looked at as a growth center, and rightly so. It is wholly appropriate to focus residential and commercial development to maintain a vital downtown, which at the same time avoids the suburban sprawl that could occur from similar developments in other areas.

But living in this urban environment requires an adequate number of local parks, open spaces and natural areas, which are crucial to the quality of life we all enjoy here. Since Burlington is the urban core of Vermont, it is also critical for the city to try to reduce its environmental impact on the lake, ground and atmosphere. Burlington has done much in these regards, including creating a Climate Action Plan, passing a comprehensive stormwater ordinance and implementing efficiency programs through Burlington Electric.

There remains, however, much to be done.

For Burlington, as in many places, the goal is to strike a balance between growing the downtown, continuing to offer a high quality of life and reducing our carbon footprint.

I polled people active in the environmental community (particularly the Burlington Conservation Board) to help create a list of questions for the candidates to address in the current mayoral campaign:

• In an effort to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, what would your administration do to:

a) Encourage pedestrian and bicycle transportation?

b) Increase the use of public transportation?

• In a related question, what would you do to reduce the amount of cars on the road, which would not only decrease pollution but would ease traffic congestion and reduce parking needs? Specifically, how would you address:

a) Reduction of single occupancy vehicles?

b) Establishment and utilization of park and rides and/or capture lots?

• Burlington has a fantastic park system managed by a hardworking staff. Some questions, though, remain:

a) How would you work to ensure that adequate land for parks, trails and natural areas will be provided for as Burlington grows?

b) How would you balance budgeting for a high-cost skate park with the other park priorities that need to be met?

c) In general, what would you do to create a better input and oversight process for large-ticket capital improvement is our parks?

d) Burlington City Arts is creating a new master plan for the future of City Hall Park. What is your vision for this important urban park? Would you like to see it become more of a public square, with lots of events and activities, or create more of a green oasis as a respite for the bustle of downtown?

• Considering the current Downtown & Waterfront Plan that is being written, what is the right level of density (housing and related businesses) that should be built in downtown Burlington in order to reduce transportation costs and curtail sprawl in other areas?

• Considering this plan, what is your vision of the Burlington waterfront?

a) Do you believe preserving the park-like character is desirable for the waterfront area, or would you like to see it more developed?

b) What would you do to create a process to determine future uses of the waterfront? How would you include key players in the community in this discussion, including park users, nearby residents, city departments, boaters and others?

c) Considering the expected increase of development on the waterfront due to the Moran Plant redevelopment, are you willing start to start a dialog of uses for the “North 40?”

Other questions that came up include:

• What is the best way to continue to manage and utilize the $1.3 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding the Department of Public Works received for stormwater improvements?

• As mayor, what strategies would you focus on in the Climate Action Plan, which has the goal reducing greenhouse gases to 20 percent below 2007 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 2007 levels by 2050?

• What can Burlington do to weatherize more homes?

• Driveway sealants that use coal tar have been proved to contain 100 times more in toxic PAH’s (poly-aromatic hydrocarbons) than asphalt-based sealants. What would you do to limit coal-tar-based driveway sealants?

I look forward to an interesting and lively debate on these and other issues important to Burlington.

Harris Roen is a member of the Burlington Planning Commission. He publishes the Roen Financial Report and RoenReport.com, a financial newsletter/website that focuses on investments in alternative energy companies. He also is a consulting forester, working with private landowners throughout northern Vermont to manage their woodlands.

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