Act 250 reforms remain a legislative work in progress

Published: Mar. 23, 2022 at 6:19 PM EDT
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NORTH HERO, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are teeing up big investments in housing fueled by federal cash. But there are disagreements on how and where to build and Act 250, the state’s 52-year-old land use law, is at the heart of many of those discussions.

Passed back in 1970, Act 250 is credited with preserving the natural beauty of the state. But critics have long said its cumbersome regulations can stifle development, especially in housing. Vermont has a well-known shortage of the so-called “missing middle” -- homes for middle-income families. Many developers say they are apprehensive about breaking ground on potential projects because they don’t want to take the risk of appeals and litigation.

“And then you’re left with a loss or you’re having to charge a lot more to your housing unit to the individual and it makes it difficult to entice some of these developers,” said Jim Bradley, a home builder based in South Hero.

The lack of housing supply is pricing some Vermonters out of the market. Work was already underway to bring comprehensive reform to Act 250 to address 21st-century challenges, but then came COVID.

“Several years we had a big implosion and it feels like that can’t continue,” said Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover.

A legislative working group has been developing an omnibus rural development package with a big focus on Act 250. Lawmakers and the Scott administration largely agree that development needs to happen in downtown centers, where there’s already water and sewer infrastructure, and avoiding the kind of urban sprawl the law was initially intended to avoid.

“Sometimes people are building further out afield where it has the opposite effect,” said Housing and Community Development Commissioner Josh Hanford.

Other bills, which include money for missing middle housing are also attached to rental and contractor registries governor that the governor does not support. Despite the political logjam, lawmakers say they are set on finding consensus.

“We’re kind of in a death spiral of not getting anything done. And so right now with housing, we know this is such a crisis we need to get regulations passed this year, improvements on Act 250 passed this year to help solve that,” Sibilia said.

Lawmakers say housing -- and Act 250 -- are lynchpins that affect affordability, health care, education, and the state’s “demographic problem.” “The future of Vermont and our rural communities depend on our ability to thread this important needle of preserving and protecting our environment and developing in places where it is strategic and sustainable,” said Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury.

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