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Above and Beyond

05/16/02 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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You would naturally think that an aerial view of Vermont would yield views of rolling mountains, blue lakes, farms and forests. But there's another view of Vermont from above, and it offers a vision not of a natural paradise, but of strip-malls and a burgeoning suburbia.

In Above and Beyond by Julie Campoli, Elizabeth Humstone and photographer Alex MacLean, a view of Essex Junction from the air shows row upon row of cookie-cutter tract housing. A view of one approach to the attractive little village of Hardwick shows parking areas run amok huge expanses of pavement surrounding nondescript industrial buildings. And a comparison view of Morrisville and the nearby commercial section along Route 15 in Morristown makes it obvious that the malls and supermarkets now consume at least four times as much space as the traditional village down the way, which has been dwarfed by the new development.

This is a coffee-table book of photographs with a message: Vermont is being quietly suburbanized, suggests Above and Beyond. It is happening piecemeal and on a small scale, but it is nonetheless happening, and it has the potential to change rural Vermont from a welcome haven away from mass commerce into more of the same.

The book's many aerial photos show what can't be seen from the ground - the different patterns that different forms of development make on the land. It is obvious that there's still a lot of Vermont left. Above and Beyond makes note of communities such as Brandon, Montpelier, Vergennes and Barre, where traditional downtowns make errands and business easy to conduct on a human scale. But the book also shows places in Dorset where huge trophy homes are plunked right in the middle of good farmland and commercial districts in Williston and elsewhere that are surrounded by acres of pavement and accessible only by car. It graphically shows the difference between growth that retains the character of a place and growth that destroys it.

"These images represent what is happening to the ordinary landscape of rural areas," authors Campoli and Humstone write. "The little additions and alterations along roadways over time add up to a substantial change, but the change usually goes unnoticed until it's too late." Such trends can be reversed by good town and regional planning, they write.

But will Vermont retain its invaluable sense of place, its rural character? Or will it turn into another very pleasant, slightly hilly version of suburbia? It's too soon to say. But Above and Beyond offers clear evidence that the choice is upon us and if we are to save Vermont as we know and love it we need to act now.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.
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