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Moats: Growing Vermont

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William Moats Sr.
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David Moats, left, and brothers Brian, center, and Bill, survey the catch after a fishing expedition on a visit to Idaho in 1956.

Most Vermonters know by now that ours is the second oldest population of all the states — after Maine's — and the need to keep young people here and attract new ones is widely understood and accepted. We're also a small state where growth is relatively slow, opportunity not boundless and housing hard to come by. In addition, our rural character makes a lot of people wary of unchecked sprawl, and so people here often view economic growth as a mixed blessing.Recently, I had a chance to visit a place experiencing change that's quite the opposite of Vermont's slow-paced, incremental growth. Boise, Idaho, is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and it's safe to say what I saw there probably isn't what most Vermonters want to see here.

Boise was once a small city, surrounded to the south and west by farm fields that stretched for miles on the flat table land known as the Bench. In summer, when I used to visit my grandparents, the air was full of the smell of freshly cut alfalfa. Now those fields are the site of miles and miles of housing tracts, wide boulevards and shopping centers. It's the kind of growth familiar in California where sprawl is too mild a word to describe the massive spread of suburban-style development.

Any of the larger developments creating controversy in Vermont over the years could be absorbed in the Boise region without anyone even noticing. I saw whole new towns that simply didn't exist just a few years ago. But Vermont geography, character and history mean growth at that scale doesn't work here.

That doesn't mean Vermont can't grow. Certainly, economic decline and impoverishment are not a good choice. So, we're left with the familiar debate about how to encourage jobs that fit our rural economy and our burgeoning tech centers, and how to build housing and businesses that don't leach the life out of our small town centers.

Idaho is beautiful, and Boise is interesting and lively. Vermont is all of those, but it's something else, too, and finding our own formula for growth remains the challenge it's always been.