Smart Growth groups from Vernon, Stafford sponsor presentation with information on the subject of big box growth in area towns
By L. ASTA RICHIE
VERNON/STAFFORD - Sprawl - which many consider an insidious threat to local business, old-fashioned community and the environment - was the focus of a discussion on the evening of Aug. 16. The informational meeting, entitled "Big Box Myths vs. Open Space, Towns and Taxes," was prompted by the ongoing controversy and protests surrounding the plans for Wal-Mart to open a large store in Stafford.
Sponsored by Smart Growth for Vernon and Stafford First: Citizens for Responsible Growth, the presentation featured Norwalk native John Calandrelli - the State Program Director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Sierra Club - speaking to a crowd of about 45 concerned citizens at the Rockville United Methodist Church.
Calandrelli, whose background is in environmental science and research policy, began by giving an overview of Wal-Mart and the impact the company has had on U.S. businesses and workers. While he admitted approaching the topic with a particular bias, Calandrelli was careful to cite sources for his assertions, providing the appreciative crowd with a wealth of material.
Neither Vernon nor Stafford is the first town to address the issues of rapid growth and potential development by so-called "Big Box" companies such as Wal-Mart. Calandrelli praised both towns for being "ahead of the game" in the effort to promote responsible development and public awareness of the many issues involved. As urban sprawl continues, Calandrelli said, communities throughout the country are being faced with the question of balance, increasingly deciding that these mega-stores are not the best option. Calandrelli provided a list of towns that have had victories over Wal-Mart in the last few years, including Old Saybrook.
Calandrelli also emphasized the importance of civic involvement. Listing such recognizable programs as the New Deal, the G.I. Bill, public parks and farm security and conservation, Calandrelli drove home his point by reminding his audience that all had begun as grassroots movements.
"Encourage people to get on the boards and commissions and then spread the word to those who don't go to the meetings. This is your town... Nobody's going to get everything he wants in life; that's it. We want this and that - okay. How are you going to pay for it? Nothing's free," he continued.
"I am often asked, 'Why is there so much growth in [a given] location?'
There are two reasons; First, zoning regulations that allow the businesses to be there, and second, you go there," he said.
Arming his audience with a better understanding of the concept of smart growth, Calandrelli explained that there "is no one size fits all solution....[People] need to think differently. Ask what works. What should be done differently? Look at the land that's available, and organize development creatively," he challenged, providing specific examples from around the country.
Calandrelli suggested that a good place to start was making "regulations clear enough that an 11-year-old can understand them.... Growth, yes," he said, "but style, place, size, and so on matter."
Among his ideas for creative growth were downtown renewal, split mortgages, the use of existing structures for new purposes, and the use of grass or gravel pave instead of traditional paving for parking lots and the like.
The importance of doing one's research and having specific arguments in support of or opposition to a given development proposal, as well as understanding how a proposal may impact the area as a whole, was made clear.
The speaker encouraged citizens to be well-informed and articulate in their positions.
Calandrelli used a map of the area to reinforce his point that "the boundaries of Vernon are set; that's all the land you have.... When you have plans for growth in a particular area, people should ask, 'Then what?' Sustainability is important. Your environment is the same as your neighbors.. .talk to each other," he said.
"Get the big picture of the area.. .A river doesn't care about town boundaries. What happens in one matters to everyone."
The presentation concluded with a question and answer session that covered topics ranging from the importance of wetlands to the increase in elderly housing in the Vernon area.
Calandrelli used this segment of the program to weave in additional hints and suggestions, books and resources that could assist local organizers.
He repeatedly encouraged active civic involvement as the best way of handling growth, urging people to assume responsibility for their community's development. Vernon's Audrey Clay, a member of Smart Growth, agreed. In reference to the defeat of Wal-Mart's bid to build in the town, she said, "The citizens of Vernon were well informed, like pros; they didn't just say they didn't want the store, they had research, reasons. To beat a Fortune 500 company... it just goes to show the power of the people. It works if you do your homework."