The Future of South Burlington: Voter Survey Results

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Thursday January 17, 2013

One of the hottest issues of the past year has been “Interim Zoning” and the four task forces appointed to study the central issues surrounding future directions for city growth. Opinions on suggested changes differ widely. A member of one of those study groups, Sociologist Vince Bolduc of Saint Michael’s College, volunteered to gauge citizen attitudes by conducting a survey on voters on Election Day, November 6th.  With the help of 20 research students, this was done and the analysis is now complete. Today’s issue contains the first in a series of four articles reporting on how 404 voters responded to the 30 planning-related questions posed by the interviewers. A similar survey by Bolduc was sponsored by The Other Paper in 1992, and the results are contained in a time capsule buried in City Hall Park. That data set allows for some comparisons over the 20-year time span.

The Survey

The survey was conducted to better understand what public issues voters feel are most important, how restrictive (or permissive) zoning should be, and how people feel about new initiatives such as the City Center project, sustainable local agriculture, affordable housing, and preserving open space. City Planner Paul Connor, Development Coordinator Kimberly Murray, and a number of other professionals contributed to the selection and framing of the questions. Once at the polls, a high proportion of voters were willing to participate in the 10-minute interviews. In fact, there were several occasions in which voters waited in line for the opportunity to voice their opinions. Interviewers worked at each of the City’s precinct locations throughout the day.

Statistical analysis of the 404 voters revealed a good representation of adults in South Burlington in terms of age and gender. But, as we often find in surveys of voters, our respondents were more likely to own their own homes and have significantly higher levels of education than the average resident. The educational difference, in particular, is quite striking. The 2010 Census tells us that nationally, about 30% of adults have graduated from a four year college, but in South Burlington the proportion is 51%. Among our voters, the percentage is higher still, at 80%.

Other national research also suggests that voters have higher average incomes than non-voters, are more often married, are more engaged in their local communities, and are most likely to describe themselves as politically independent. Voters typically are also found to be “more trusting” than non-voters, and frequently have lived in their respective communities for a longer period of time.

A  high proportion of South Burlington voters described themselves as “liberal” (38%), as opposed to “conservative” (19%), “independent” (35%), or “other” (9%). This political orientation is also reflected in the outcomes of South Burlington’s election results, in which the liberal candidates were easily re-elected: 69% voted for President Obama; 73% voted for Senator Sanders; and 75% supported Representative Welsh. In national surveys, only about 21% of Americans define themselves as liberals, compared to about 40% who define themselves as conservatives.
For all these reasons, voter surveys (as well as all elections, for that matter) rarely give us a perfect representation of all adults in a community. Such an imbalance is common in democracies. There are few exceptions to the claim of social scientists that those with the most elite characteristics have the most influence. Accordingly, we caution readers that the survey findings that we shall present in the coming weeks inevitably will be statistically dominated by well-educated homeowners who are more engaged politically in the affairs of the community, and who are more likely to self-describe as having a liberal political orientation. This caveat is especially important in light of many of our findings, in which the highly educated and the self-described liberals have distinctive points of view, which may or not represent non-voters.

Part One: Top Priorities

One of the central aspects of the Election Day Planning and Zoning Survey was a 10-item list of public issues that voters were asked to rate as either “very important,” “somewhat important,” or “not at all important.” Most of the issues have been the subject of recent public discussion. The list was read in no particular order as voters responded to each question one at a time. For six of the items, voters were then asked if the issue was important enough for them, “to be willing to spend an extra $100 a year in local taxes to support.”  Reorganized in order of public priority, the table below presents the percentage of voters who rated each item as “very important” and “not at all important.” The far right column presents the proportion of voters who are so committed to the issue as to be willing to increase their tax rate in order to support this endeavor.

It is no surprise that maintenance of the city schools and fiscal responsibility with the City budget are the top priority for voters, and high percentages of respondents are also concerned about maintaining the existing tax rate as well as attracting more businesses.

Several of the items (3, and 7 through 10) are particularly relevant in light of the study groups working to make recommendations while under interim zoning.  Of these five issues under study by the Task Forces, only 3, “preserving open and undeveloped land,” enjoys majority support at the “very important” level. However, as we shall see in the subsequent articles, only a minority of voters are committed to major zoning changes to achieve this end. It is also worth noting that the question on willingness to increases taxes to support this goal was asked on the 1992 survey when it received almost identical support. On five statewide surveys going back to 1990, the percentages on this item have run about 10% lower.

After considering this list of priorities, we looked beneath the surface to identify which types of voters were the most likely to support the open space and agricultural issues (questions 3, 7, and 9), issues central to the work of the Sustainable Agriculture Task Force. We found that voters with the highest levels of education were—by a large measure—the most committed supporters of preserving open space, but they were less committed to “growing more of our own food.” The most consistent and predictable pattern, however, was seen in the political self identification of voters. Those who self-described as “liberals” (as opposed to “conservative,” “independent,” or “other”) were far more likely to support each of these three issues than are any other group. This is depicted in the graph below.
Voters were also given a hypothetical question about how undeveloped land in South Burlington should be used: “Suppose that the City was given 100 acres of undeveloped land and could do anything they wanted with it. What do you think they should do with it? What’s your first choice?” Respondents were then given a card with a list of five options. “Maintenance of untouched open space” was the most popular choice, although two of the other choices would also maintain open space.

a. Maintain it as untouched open space for walking trails and wildlife (41%)
b. Find people who could use it for gardens or farming (21%)
c. Use it for more active recreational purposes, like ball fields and playgrounds    (18%)
d. Sell it to developers for the purpose of affordable housing (10%)
e. Something else (10%)

It is clear that significant numbers of voters wish to preserve some proportion of the undeveloped land in South Burlington as open space. How much land, where, and how this could be accomplished is unclear. Questions on the re-introduction of farming and gardening enjoyed less support than the simple preservation of open space, and will be the subject of analysis in the coming weeks.

The next article in this four-part series will look at respondent attitudes towards zoning as a means of achieving land use objectives.

SOURCE: Vincent Bolduc