Are Vermont’s land-use regulations contributing to housing crisis?

Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 5:15 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A recent annual federal report indicates Vermont has the second highest rate of homelessness per capita in the country after California. While some housing advocates say the state’s land use laws are part of the problem, environmental groups are urging caution.

Gary Winslett, a political science professor at Middlebury College, says the high homeless rate in Vermont is at least partly caused by strict land use regulations. He crunched some numbers -- looking at studies by HUD and the CATO Institute -- and found Vermont second for homelessness and 45th in land-use freedom. “Local regulations that stack on top of the state-level regulations that are fairly onerous. They do restrain scale and they drive up cost,” Winslett said.

He says Act 250, the state’s land use law, makes it difficult for developers to build, especially around cities like Burlington, and that the state needs to focus on loosening restrictions to help build more suburban developments in places like fields near cities so more people can live closer to where they work.

“We don’t have to develop the whole state but it would really be helpful if places in and around the Burlington area can grow and so we can have that housing. And again, if they’re closer to their jobs and they have modern insulated homes, that’s good for the climate, too,” Winslett said.

Environmental groups like the Vermont Natural Resources Council say they also want more buildings, but don’t like Winslett’s plan. The group’s Kati Gallagher says sprawl is not the answer. “We are able to reduce the environmental impact of sprawl on our natural lands. So, when we think about our other goals of protecting our farmlands and forests and our natural resources, those are all getting cut up the more that we build up and up,” she said. She wants to see more concentrated development in town centers. “In places where we already have infrastructure that taxpayers have invested in, we have transportation services, this is where our services are.”

Lawmakers in Montpelier are working to address Vermont’s housing shortage. The governor is pushing for Act 250 reform while Democrats want to institute statewide zoning that would dictate where homes can be built.

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