This is the second of three articles summarizing the responses of 431 voters as they left their respective South Burlington polling stations on Nov. 6. The survey was part of a research project conducted by the author’s sociology class at Saint Michael’s College. Thirty-five students conducted the 10-15 minute interviews, including a number from SBHS. It is the fourth South Burlington survey the students have undertaken since 1992.
No survey is perfect, including this one. Exit polls can only represent registered voters who show up on any given Election Day, inevitably missing a large segment of non-voting adults. Analysis shows that our respondents mirrored many of the same demographics as is found in the larger community, but no guarantee can be made that the sample perfectly represents the entire population.
The focus in this second article is on open space preservation and other planning issues.
New housing developments are frequently challenged for any number of reasons, from the aesthetic issue of compromising views to the pragmatic considerations of traffic congestion and overburdening community resources, including those of the natural environment. Over the past decades, virtually every new, large-scale housing development in the city has been subject to some form of criticism, often most intensely by residents closest to the proposed site.
In the statewide context, we see that even as a few communities struggle with controlling and limiting growth, many more consider the declining population of workers to be the most pressing problem. This issue was front and center in Governor Scott’s recent inaugural address in which he makes the case that population stagnation is one of the state’s most salient problems. He singled out declining school enrollment as “the canary in the mineshaft” with this example: “In our public schools,” he said, “we’re now educating about 30,000 fewer K-12 students than we were in 1997.” This issue is hardly restricted to Vermont. Many states now have more deaths than births, and interstate competition for new residents and workers is increasingly common. In his budget proposal on Jan. 2, the Governor recommended several new initiatives to entice more workers to move to Vermont.
Many would find it paradoxical that even as South Burlington — the state’s second largest city — has experienced steady population growth, the school age population has been declining. For instance, the census reports that the population of South Burlington was 10,032 in 1970 and had grown to an estimated 18,704 by 2017. But over those same 47 years, the population of children (ages 0 to 17) declined from 4,136 to 3,107.
The complexity of this new demographic balance (or imbalance) is worsened with the bulge of the baby boom threatening to overwhelm many organizations that provide services for the population over age 65. South Burlington now has a median age of 43.2, significantly higher than the state’s average of 41.5 and the national average of just 37.2. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these demographic changes, both locally and nationally.
These dynamics set the backdrop for a number of the exit poll questions about community growth, the importance of preserving open space and the extra one cent tax set aside to preserve rural areas through the “Open Space Conservation Fund.” Part of this focus was also on the official Comprehensive Plan, formally adopted by the city and a major planning tool to shape our future.
This section of the interviews began with this simple question: “Do you generally think that South Burlington is growing too quickly, too slowly, or is the rate of growth about right?” A clear majority of voters are of the opinion that our growth rate is either “about right” or “too slow” (70 percent). Nonetheless, those concerned about excessive growth form a large minority of 30 percent.
Analysis revealed many statistically significant differences by subgroups, e.g., women were more likely to select the “too quickly” option — 37 percent compared to 25 percent for men. Likewise, homeowners were more concerned about growth by a difference of 36 percent to 17 percent for renters. Finally, voters under the age of 40 were far less concerned about rapid growth than older residents.
Most recent residential development has occurred within the section of the city known as the “Southeast Quadrant” (SEQ), the area that still holds a great deal of open space. We wondered how voters felt about recent growth in the SEQ, so we filtered out the 42 percent of voters who were not familiar with the area and then asked the remaining 58 percent the following question: “Over the past several decades, the Southeast Quadrant has seen a number of new residential neighborhoods built, but the city has also set aside many areas what will never be built on. Overall, do you like the looks of the way this area is evolving or do you not like it?” Of the 236 people who could answer this question, 62 percent said that they “like the way it has evolved” and 38 percent chose the opposite. The reasons people gave for not liking the growth patterns in the SEQ typically referenced “too many developments” or “too much sprawl” but there were also criticisms of the lots being too small or houses being too large.
One of the goals of the Comprehensive Plan is “the conservation of important open spaces within the city” so we asked how well the city has done in the past two or three years in meeting that particular goal. Only 8 percent of voters selected the “excellent” option, but another 41 percent said “very good” and 30 percent selected “fair.” “Poor” was chosen by 11 percent and 10 percent could not answer. While this may not seem like a particularly affirmative outcome, only two of the eight goals received a more positive rating. These results are very similar to those received on an identical question asked in the 2016 Exit Poll.
There are a number of tools that planners can use to preserve open space, some of them very controversial and fraught with complex legal implications, especially with land owners claiming a list of rights and assurances. One less controversial and popular tool to preserve open land parcels is for the city buy the property outright at prevailing market prices. The city is then responsible for the preservation of the land. South Burlington has done this at least five times since 2001 with the Auclair and Underwood properties as the most recent acquisitions. Many hope to see the program expanded.
Do the voters like this program and wish to maintain it? Expand it? Shrink it? We asked this lengthy question to determine voter opinion: “About 15 years ago, city taxpayers agreed to contribute 1 cent on their tax rate towards an Open Space Conservation Fund and since then, that money has been used to purchase a number conservation properties. Today that 1 cent might translate to about $25 or $30 for the average homeowner. To expand the Conservation Fund, should the city now increase that amount to more than 1 cent, decrease it, or keep it the same? The results depicted in the pie chart tell us that this program enjoys significant voter support.
A follow-up question was then asked only of the 42 percent of voters who selected the “increase” option: “How much more would you be willing to add? A half cent more? 1 cent more? Or more than 1 cent?” Ten percent of these voters were willing to pay half cent more, 50 percent were willing to pay one cent more, and 40 percent were willing to pay “more than one cent.” Willingness to increase the tax was positively correlated with one’s education, perhaps because education influences ability to pay.
We asked one other set of questions about people’s willingness to financially support a total of eight other city initiatives, including preserving open space. The wording went something like this: “So hypothetically, would you be willing to pay an extra $100 in property taxes per year to permanently preserve more open and undeveloped land in our city?” When phrased as a clear “hypothetical,” voters tended to be more generous than they were in the phrasing above that involved adding a penny to the tax rate. Fully 80 percent of voters said “yes,” they would be willing to pay $100 more per year to preserve more open and undeveloped land.
The author has asked this question on eight different surveys since 1990 and found that South Burlington residents have always been far more inclined to spend the “extra $100 to preserve open space” than are most Vermonters in statewide polls. Only about 50 percent of Vermonters agree to the “extra $100,” but 72 percent of South Burlington residents did in 1992, 66 percent in 2012 and 80 percent in the current survey. Two explanations are likely. The first is the relative affluence of our city’s residents, and the second is that we are an urban area with an expanding population and a relative scarcity of remaining open land. The fact that $100 is worth less today than in 1992 is surely another factor.
Finally, our exit poll wished to provide some feedback on how much progress voters thought the city was achieving in the goals of the “Comprehensive Plan,” a hefty document that periodically takes stock of where we are and how we wish to shape our future. There are many goals identified in that document, but we chose just seven to ask about. Here is the exact wording: “The new South Burlington Comprehensive Plan sets goals for the community. How well would you say the city has done in making progress on the following priorities over the past 2-3 years? You can say excellent, very good, fair or poor progress.”
Most of these results are remarkably consistent with those found in the 2016 exit poll. The item that fell the most in this short time period related to the “effectiveness of the city schools,” which declined by 12 points. However, virtually all of that decline was due to the increase in the “don’t know” category, not an increase in negative reviews. Other items received different ratings from different sub-groups and neighborhoods. For instance, homeowners were nearly twice as likely as renters to give high ratings to progress on “affordable housing,” and voters in the Orchard school district were most likely to think that the city had made progress on better walking and bicycle connections.
Next week we will look at issues related to the schools and various forms of citizen participation.
Vince Bolduc has been a resident of South Burlington and professor of sociology at Saint Michael’s College since 1974. He has conducted more than 50 surveys, both local and statewide, and retired four weeks ago.