Act 250 reform compromise proves elusive at Statehouse

Published: Feb. 3, 2020 at 4:33 PM EST
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A compromise between the Scott administration and an environmental group over Act 250 reform is facing challenges at the Statehouse. While many agree the state's landmark land use policy has prevented runaway sprawl, others argue that its become too burdensome and could actually be discouraging the kind of development its supporters seek.

Jessie Upson owns a historic homestead in Craftsbury which has a wellness center and a bistro on site. While renovating the restaurant, she had to test the water quality to make sure it was up to snuff. She says this sent her into a bureaucratic maze of applying for permits and spending money on experts with no end in sight.

"I think the biggest thing about Act 250 was the emotional and financial toll it took on us," Upson said.

While officials point out that Upson's challenges in obtaining the DEC permits are not directly linked to the Act 250 process, they do reflect the frustration of many property owners who have butted heads with Act 250 over the years.

Supporters say the landmark policy is part of the reason many towns don't have mini malls and the interstates aren't lined with bill boards like in some other states. But they also admit it's due for some changes.

"It's a complicated, cumbersome and expensive system now," said Brian Shupe with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, which has been working with the Scott administration to strike a deal.

Among other elements, the agreement eliminates the state's nine District Environmental Commissions, which evaluate major projects under 10 environmental criteria. It would also make it easier to develop in existing urban areas.

"By merging the environmental commission with the Natural Resources Board -- professionalizing that board -- while maintaining regional perspective and making that board more independent," Shupe said.

Lawmakers have been working the past several years to streamline Act 250, but some have concerns that the administration deal might cut back too much on local control.

Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Peter Walke say its a delicate balance between staying true to Act 250's original intent but also keeping in mind the needs of all Vermonters. "It's a question of what that looks like. I think we can work through those issues and resolve them in a way where everybody is satisfied and we get a process that reflects the opportunities that we see in front of us," he said.

In the meantime, small business owners like Upson say they'll keep on having to front the bill for expensive appeals. "We are all for what Act 250 stands for, but its not working for Vermonters who are trying to run small businesses," she said.

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