Land use planning is an important tool for aligning settlement patterns and natural resource management with Vermont residents’ values. Community-level plans and policies affect many concrete land management and development decisions in Vermont. It is difficult to support farm viability without intentional local and regional land use policies that preserve agricultural land, and without a culture that values the services and economic opportunities provided by the natural resource. Land use policies are living documents, and economic, demographic, and geographic shifts call for a thorough updating of existing plans and policies. Communities empowered to directly engage with the food and agriculture community, and to proactively plan for transitions happening beyond municipal borders, will both protect our existing agricultural land base and increase economic opportunity throughout the whole food system, including processing and distribution, market development, and food access.
Vermont is divided among 11 regional planning commissions (RPCs), each with a regional land use plan, and as of 2017, 84% of Vermont municipalities had also adopted a municipal plan.1 State planning statutes require regional and municipal plans to include a land-use map and policies for preservation of natural and scenic resources, as well as sections on other topics related to the food system such as economic development, flood resilience, housing, and transportation. RPC staff also encourage municipalities to include food access considerations in their plans.
Land use planning is a highly effective (and cost-efficient) form of farmland preservation, and includes an array of regulatory tools such as zoning, conservation subdivision design, and overlay districts. State-level review of proposed development under Act 250 requires conformance with local and regional plans, which gives these plans additional legal weight when Act 250 is triggered. However, Act 250 is not itself a statewide land use plan, and many developments are designed to avoid triggering Act 250 jurisdiction, leaving local policies as the only regulatory oversight.
A tendency in traditional planning to characterize farmland as “open space” can diminish the understanding of farms as businesses and downplay the importance of supporting farms through economic development initiatives as well as land preservation. However, there are mechanisms by which planning can support the agricultural economy. For example, a local food economy depends on adequate aggregation and processing infrastructure, which depends upon not only development regulations but also utilities such as water and wastewater processing, all within the purview of planning.
Planning is also an important and increasingly utilized tool for improving food access at several points in the supply chain. For example, food access is dependent upon food retailers. The location of these retailers can be influenced by zoning regulations or development incentives, or location challenges can be mitigated through better transportation planning (see Food Security brief.)