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Vermont Act 250 reform effort stumbles to finish line

Published: Sep. 16, 2020 at 5:46 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 16, 2020 at 5:49 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont Senate is pushing ahead with Act 250 reform, but the future of the land-use planning law remains unclear after some lawmakers and the Scott administration say it falls far short of the ambitious package it once was.

Act 250, Vermont’s singular land-use planning law was slated for big changes in this legislative session. The landmark law for years has come under fire from critics arguing that it stifles development. But supporters say the law has protected Vermont’s iconic landscape from irresponsible sprawl seen in other areas of the country.

Originally passed in the ’70s, a lot has changed in land development, environmental conditions, and outdoor recreation. That’s why the Legislature’s been taking testimony for the past several years in anticipation of major reforms to strengthen the law. They were slated to vote on it in the spring, but then COVID-19 forced lawmakers online.

“As we all know, when we came back we were appropriately COVID focused and that delayed our work on Act 250 until June,” said Senate Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Chris Bray, D- Addison County.

But what started as an ambitious plan, has now been pared down to just two proposals -- dense forest protection and updated rules regarding recreational trails.

Environmental groups still support the effort and say it’s a step in the right direction. “We understand the Senate committee, given the circumstances, they’re operating in, opted to hold off on some of the more far-reaching changes and focus on some of the key changes they’ve been dealing with for several years,” said Brian Shupe, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

But the Scott administration doesn’t think the plan goes far enough. Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore says the Act 250 reform is missing incentives that will make it easier to build in Vermont’s downtowns. “Creating one less regulatory process that projects in these areas need to go through, and the hope being that it would provide a small carrot of encouragement for the type of development we want,” she said.

As the will behind Act 250 reform appears to taper, lawmakers admit it’s unclear if it will pass this session since the House put so much work into the full reform package.

And as Vermont observes Act 250′s 50th anniversary without comprehensive reform, Moore worries that the political will will die out. “I imagine there will be less interest in taking up a comprehensive package next year and we may be limited to this incremental progress, or frankly, that it will return to the back burner for a while,” she said.

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will want to pick up the reform efforts again next session and observers say even if they do, the political playing field could be much different depending on what happens in November.

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Act 250 overhaul won’t be voted on this year

Commission plans to issue report on Act 250 land use law

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Lawmakers discuss future of Act 250

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