SOUTH BURLINGTON -- Higher energy costs might accelerate denser, "smarter" urban settlements in Chittenden County -- and spare its more pristine countryside -- but only if regional and state agencies get on board, say local planning experts.

Jeff Arango, the director of planning and zoning for Essex Junction, was one of about 50 planners Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel Conference Center in South Burlington to mull the roadblocks.

Disconnects between visions, funding, regulations and incentives enlivened the first half of the conference, which was hosted by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

Arango said automobile-dominated communities might benefit from assertive makeovers, such as the one planned for the village strip mall along Pearl Street. The village hopes to reduce parking-lot requirements for the area, broaden sidewalks and reduce the number of traffic lanes in some sections.

"It might mean that the 1950s shopping center model might be outdated for us," he said. "But we can't talk about alternative transportation without making the investments."

Residents of a town do not always agree on development's price tag, said Lee Nellis, the town planner for Williston.

One impetus for smart-growth development at Taft Corners, the state's first designated growth center, has been Williston's commitment to preserving rural land, Nellis said.

Another is sustainability.

"The energy issue is in the background," he said. "We're looking at the reality of a $5 gallon of gas down the road. We need to have developments where people can walk."

Yet Taft Corners' success needs much more than a mere seal of approval from Montpelier, Nellis continued. "The state needs to step up and provide better and more consistent incentives before I would advise any other town to participate in the (growth center) program," he said. "If the state doesn't support us, this attempt at compact growth is ultimately not going to succeed. We'll get more and more spin-off development and more and more commuting."

He said the state's lack of follow-up was "like being hit with a water balloon."

Even so, Colchester's application for growth center status at Severance Corners is still in the works, said Town Planner Sarah Hadd.

Hadd said she hoped financing incentives would draw developers away from prime agricultural land and head off future sprawl. The application went hand in hand with town efforts to gently dissolve residents' co-dependency on the automobile.

"The less traffic we generate, the less surface parking we have to build; the less we have to spend on traffic improvements," she said.

Greg Brown, the commission's executive director, said the Chittenden County Transportation Authority provided "an excellent foundation for broader transportation service" in the area, but further upgrades -- improvements that would accelerate smart growth -- required updated state guidelines.

"That ball bounces back to the Legislature and the Governor's Office," he said.

This summer, Brown plans to retire and move to his home in Windham County, far from the rumble of Burlington's metropolitan growth pains.

"People there tell me that Chittenden County is nice because it's close to Vermont," he said.

Contact Joel Banner Baird at 660-1843 or