Vince Buldoc

The Future of South Burlington Voter Survey Results: Summary and Retrospective

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Thursday February 14, 2013

Part Five

About the series: As described in previous issues of The Other Paper, the hottest issue of the past year has been “Interim Zoning” and the work of the Task Forces appointed to study the central issues surrounding future directions for city growth. On Election Day, November 6th, Saint Michael’s College Sociologist Vince Bolduc oversaw a survey of 404 voters as they responded to 30 planning-related questions asked by 20 interviewers. The accompanying article is the final in a series of five.

In this last article in the Voter Survey series, we are taking a step away from the charts and percentages of individual questions to  try to capture the ‘big picture’ with the benefit of a bit of distance. Each of the following paragraphs is an attempt to cautiously generalize from the data to broader patterns and observations. There are six summary sections.

The Context: As any reader of The Other Paper is aware, the structure of our city governance has been experiencing some controversial changes in both leadership and direction. The enactment of the present interim zoning period provides us with an opportunity to pause, study, and consider where the city should be headed. Study groups were appointed by the City Council, and consultants hired to weigh the relative merits and feasibility of various changes. This survey took place in the first year of the interim zoning initiative.

South Burlington Voters: People who turn out on Election Day are rarely representative of citizens who do not. This selection bias is reflected in our survey as well. Our survey was over-representative of more affluent and more highly motivated citizens, homeowners, the particularly well educated and self-described political “liberals.” Our analysis found that this political orientation strongly influenced voter opinions about many of the questions, especially the willingness to use zoning to achieve land use goals.

Zoning Changes: Given the above, it was quite surprising that only one in three respondents supported any of the various questions about increasing zoning restrictiveness. Another one in three did not wish to see major changes in present zoning regulations, while a significant minority wished to decrease zoning restrictiveness. Other questions similarly revealed reluctance to increase zoning restrictiveness—less than one in ten respondents were willing to simply “re-zone” private property to preserve open space.  Compared to identical questions asked of South Burlington voters in a 1992 survey, voters today are less supportive of zoning restrictions.

On balance, this survey failed to find much evidence of either strong “pro growth” or “anti growth” inclinations among our voter-respondents.  “Building more residential neighborhoods” was not seen as an important goal for the city, but neither was “slowing the rate of housing development.” On one list of 10 possible priorities for the City, “slowing the rate of housing development” was rated dead last.

Preserving Open Land: In both the 1992 survey and the present survey, the issue of “preserving open and undeveloped land in the city” was a relatively high priority—ranking third on our proposed list of 10, but it was also listed as a desired goal in other question formats as well.  Yet if voters are reluctant to use zoning to meet this goal, how is it to be achieved? Considerable creativity will be required if South Burlington is to accomplish this objective.

Sustainable Agriculture and Affordable Housing: In spite of the survey’s heavy emphasis on the subject of food and agriculture, the data did not uncover a high degree of interest in a new proposal to provide everyone in our community with locally grown food. Our respondents are very positively inclined to buying locally grown food and backyard gardening, but “encouraging farming and agriculturally based businesses” in South Burlington received low levels of support. As with the tepid response to encouraging affordable housing, the strongest support for locally sustainable agriculture in the City derives from a fairly narrow demographic. 

Some Consensus Issues: Among the issues that the November voters were most broadly enthused about, we found “maintaining the quality of our public schools” and fiscal responsibility at the top of the list. “Building and expanding businesses” was also seen as a positive enhancement to the city, as was developing the City Center project. The latter was rooted in a particularly wide demographic and ideological base.

Conclusion: It seems that the voters of South Burlington are not as conflicted or divided as our public meetings sometimes suggest. Most voters take a moderate position on development, avoiding either a “pro growth” or an “anti growth” position; most disagreements are between those at the extremes. In fact, there is impressive consensus on many of the most important issues that characterize good communities everywhere—good schools, financial prudence, and an openness to intelligent growth that balances the public good with individual rights. Perhaps these priorities are not much different from the traditional values that have made South Burlington the successful community that it is today.

SOURCE: Vince Bolduc