How a small quarry could have a big effect on Vermont’s land use law

Published: Dec. 24, 2021 at 3:03 PM EST
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CAVENDISH, Vt. (WCAX) - A ruling from Vermont’s highest court on a small quarry in Cavendish could have a big effect on the state’s landmark land use law.

Several years ago, Springfield-based Snowstone LLC wanted to buy just under an acre of land in Cavendish from two landowners to set up a quarry. That acre-- a small slice of a 176-acre property.

A local district environmental coordinator said Snowstone needed an Act 250 permit before digging. But an environmental court disagreed, saying it did not need Act 250 approval.

Neighbors concerned with the proposal appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.

“The people on the road are concerned about the possible traffic noise, maybe even explosions. Who knows what’s going on down there?” said Kem Phillips of Cavendish.

This fall, all five justices on the state Supreme Court upheld the environmental court’s decision that the quarry did not need a permit.

Act 250 jurisdiction has always been decided on whether a town has local zoning bylaws.

In those towns that do, known as 10-acre towns, development on a parcel larger than 10 acres triggers Act 250.

Towns without land regulations are known as one-acre towns, where development triggers Act 250 if it is on a one-acre lot or larger.

So under this ruling in one-acre towns...

“They decided it’s not whether a parcel is an acre or more, it’s whether the amount of development is an acre or more,” said Brian Shupe, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

That means commercial and industrial development a little smaller than a football field won’t need Act 250 approval.

“You can have very high impact projects designed to go into a small footprint and skip the step of having any sort of review for aesthetic or impact on neighboring property owners,” said Merrill Bent of Woolmington, Campbell, Bent & Stasny, P.C.

Those projects would still be subject to other state regulations.

We reached out to the Cavendish landowners, their legal team and Snowstone’s lawyer, but we did not hear back before this story was published.

Act 250 is the reason Vermont as a whole looks and feels the way it does. Supporters contend the law protects Vermont from runaway development. But some developers say it’s stifled growth.

The Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission says the ruling highlights the difference between state versus local zoning regulations.

“Relying on a statewide process to protect your local community values, that’s not what the state-level processes are for. The state processes, Act 250, they look at a much larger statewide picture,” said Bonnie Waninger, the executive director of the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission.

The Natural Resources Board, seven former chairs and the Vermont Natural Resources Council filed amicus briefs.

And in a rare move, the justices will rehear oral arguments in mid-January.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are once again teeing Act 250 reform and they say they plan on making changes as a result of this ruling.

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