Vermont lawmakers slated to pick back up on Act 250 reform

Published: Jun. 28, 2021 at 4:06 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are poised to tackle Act 250 reform this session after the pandemic threw it off the rails last year. The discussions will happen amid a torrent of federal cash earmarked for housing, water and climate change.

Many agree Vermont’s 52-year-old land use law is due for changes and lawmakers the business community and environmentalists are wrestling with what it should look like.

Montpelier has been grappling with Act 250 reform for years. But on its cusp 15 months ago, the pandemic shelved the effort, closing the Statehouse and driving discussions online.

Two pandemic-dominated legislative sessions later, Montpelier is poised to pick back up on the land use law.

“We really need a crisp problem definition if we’re going to dig in and solve this,” said Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison County.

Lawmakers say they want to work carefully and identify areas of consensus.

But debate over updating the law is ramping up as Vermont grapples with federal pandemic cash, an influx of new Vermonters, a housing crunch and climate change.

On the table-- a constellation of proposals from supporting forests and farms to exempting downtown centers from Act 250.

That’s a top priority of the Scott administration.

“We need to create a regulatory framework that encourages development to take place in the areas that we want it to occur and balances that with environmental protections of the open spaces we’re seeking to protect,” said Julie Moore, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

But not everyone is on board with the idea of increasing opportunities for development.

“We shouldn’t be accelerating development, we should be slowing it down until we can address the negative effects of the development that already exists here,” said James Ehlers, an environmental advocate.

Also under consideration-- centralizing governance to streamline the process.

Right now, Act 250 permit applications are decided by nine local volunteer district commissions.

Some say that structure makes the outcomes varied and unpredictable.

“We feel like something’s got to give,” said Kevin Eschelbach, the president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Facing a housing shortage, the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce wants a streamlined, more predictable regulatory process.

“They’re subject to the same red tape and the convoluted expensive process if they wanted to build outside of town where the land is cheaper,” Eschelbach said.

But others say the perceived inconsistency is actually towns deciding what’s best for their own communities.

The majority of Act 250 applications get the greenlight.

Brian Shupe with the Vermont Natural Resources Council says most residential development doesn’t go through Act 250 but instead municipal planning boards. He says 3% of residential subdivisions go through Act 250.

“There’s a lot of development that’s happening that’s impacting state resources that isn’t being addressed in the state,” Shupe said.

Shupe also says reform needs to be geared toward equity following an influx of pandemic refugees and those moving inland as a result of climate change.

“The first wave of immigration to the state of people who are looking for that safe haven are affluent; they can afford the high cost of housing,” Shupe said. “Is that putting other people at a disadvantage?”

However, whether comprehensive reform will happen remains unclear.

“Let’s be focused and strategic and then I think we can get something done,” Bray said.

Bray says he wants to slow down the debate, take time to define what the problems are and work carefully and deliberately to pass solutions to tangible problems.

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