We love our Vermont. We appreciate its working landscape. And we have been mindful for 50 years now that Act 250 has done well by the state in its attempts to regulate the state in such a way that we have had a balance between development and protecting our natural resources.
A grand push in recent years has been made to modernize the state’s controversial development review law in an effort to make it relevant to a new era.
That effort has been met with resistance on all sides, even though everyone agrees that certain changes need to be made. But those proposed changes differ depending on what side you are on: Needing more development to help broaden the workforce and the tax base; or further protecting the state’s resources to make a state that is sustainable and able to pivot to climate change and other factors affecting the state’s valuable working landscape.
Last week the House Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 approving a major overhaul of Act 250.
According to reporting by Vermont Public Radio’s John Dillon, the bill would exempt from Act 250 review developments in designated downtowns. It would increase protections to wildlife connector areas and makes projects above 2,000 feet subject to Act 250 review, according to VPR.
Middlebury Democrat Amy Sheldon, who chairs the committee, said the work represents one compromise. “We have come up with a balanced bill that increases protections to Vermont’s environment, while also addressing some of the administrative concerns that have been brought to us throughout this process,” she told VPR.
The bill builds on an agreement reached between Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s administration and the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Brian Shupe, executive director of VNRC, said the legislation is an improvement because it will limit fragmentation of Vermont forests through piecemeal development.
“I think the most important piece is the expanded criteria to protect forests and wildlife habitat and address climate change,” he told VPR.
Shupe, who has come under considerable fire for his position, said a consolidation would create local boards with regional members, still allowing for local input. The bill also eliminates a step in the appeals process, since challenges to Act 250 decisions would no longer go to the environmental division of superior court, but rather straight to the state supreme court, according to VPR.
The legislation now will be reviewed by other committees before a vote by the full House.
Critics fear the proposed legislation will make it harder for ordinary citizens to participate, among other concerns. Our concern is far greater.
For years, on these pages, we have defended the need for Act 250. We have said repeatedly that even though the premise behind the trigger for consideration of Act 250 is size of a project, it really should be the location of a project. We see that as a flaw that cannot be easily undone.
And, while we agree that the law is outdated and needs a fresh approach, our concern is that cannot happen in any kind of meaningful way if we are looking at simply updating a few rules and changing administrative functions of Act 250 when there is no mechanism to fund such a change. That feels like a fool’s errand.
Again, no one disagrees that we need more businesses in Vermont. The data are clear. The state needs to make decisions that make economic sense in order to make the necessary turn toward prosperity. For too long, we have traded a value — and a good one, no doubt — but its 50-year-old message is one that does not support a greater good; the criteria — as policy — no longer fits.
And, fundamentally, we are not convinced that lawmakers today can contort and contrive a Frankenstein-like revision that is going to bridge any gap between those who want to protect Vermont and those who want Vermont to be the economic driver it has not been for too long. And this governor — who is standing firm going into an election year on not raising fees or taxes — will never fund whatever is proposed. That is a lot to navigate.
Act 250 is a sacred cow, which is why it’s so hard to debate meaningfully and deal with effectively. It takes a strong stomach — politically — to dismantle a historic law that has made Vermont what it is for over 50 years. But Vermont is no longer that place. The policy is showing its age. And, with the clock ticking on making ends meet, we cannot afford to enter into this fool’s errand, and go through the motions of a discussion that has been preordained by politics. Act 250’s time has come — and gone. It’s time to start over. It’s time for a hard discussion about what is best for our tomorrows. We can harness its good ideas, but create something with a 2020 vision. It’s time for Vermont to come up with a development review process that makes sense for the Vermont of today, even if that means killing a sacred cow.