In his inaugural address, Gov. Phil Scott made a point of singling out Act 250 as a policy objective that needs modernizing in order to both grow the state and regulate development. Now more than 50 years old, demands on the guidelines have changed, as have the demographics and circumstances of our state.
Faced with a Democratic super majority, the Republican governor and his administration seem to be more willing to make change. The rhetoric has been less hard-line and noticeably more moderate.
“... We must ensure businesses can stay competitive with those in other states around our region. Because, we can put all the best ideas on the table to attract young people and support working families, but if we don’t have jobs, none of it will matter. … Act 250 was created nearly 50 years ago to address a rapidly growing state. At that time, there wasn’t the regulatory oversight to deal with the population expansion brought on by the baby boom and the interstate highway system. … But those circumstances no longer exist.”
We welcome reforms to modernize Act 250 in a way that expands growth in our struggling downtowns while continuing to protect the environment.
The governor is correct: “We can and must do both.”
Scott pointed to his first time when a proposal was put forth to tweak regulation and support the development of affordable housing in our downtowns and growth centers. In his address, he urged lawmakers to “do even more to build stronger communities” by encouraging more compact development, while preserving our working lands and rural character.
“I’m sure most realize this isn’t the cure-all to our economic challenges, but as we seek to attract more people to live and work in Vermont, we must continue to expand access. This session, I’ll put forward a package of reforms, and my budget will include investments, to do just that,” the governor stated.
He wants to make sure there is a place for them.
It will take considerable partnership under the golden dome, and among stakeholders across the state.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council put forth its recommendations in a memo last autumn in the wake of the Act 47 Commission report addressing issues that were not at the forefront nearly five decades ago, namely climate change.
Their road map is certainly a good starting point for the discussion going into the session.
The memo suggests re-evaluating and updating jurisdiction and criteria based on location and impacts. “Research shows that a significant majority of land subdivision does not even trigger Act 250 jurisdiction, a gap that leads to forest fragmentation; development in areas prone to flooding and erosion; loss of wildlife habitat, primarily agriculture soils; … and sprawl.”
Using the location of a project to determine whether and which criteria apply, and updating the criteria themselves as needed, would help promote development in priority, and create smart growth locations while ensuring an appropriate level of review to shape how development occurs in outlying areas, the memo notes.
Most notably perhaps, the memo calls for the consideration of climate change.
“When Act 250 was first created, climate change was not on people’s radars. Now, it is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, with myriad potential negative and costly impacts — to public health, natural resources, public and private investments in infrastructure, and more,” it notes.
Of course, how Act 250 can be updated to help Vermont mitigate and adapt to climate change will require considerable analysis. To that end, the VNRC recommended an Agency of Natural Resources-led effort to identify current tools, programs and regulatory structures to aid in mitigation.
All of the recommendations, as well as those being proposed by other groups, stakeholders and lawmakers, will need to consider our times. The language of Act 250 and many of its definitions have changed and evolved in 50 years — there have been changes to roads, rivers, streams, wetlands and even shorelines. It will require a detailed technical review to allow the guidelines to be cohesive and up to date.
And then come the changes to the process (including appeals) and oversight, which is where accountability will lie. That is also where the most political debate will bubble to the surface, because the process itself will dictate the “best plan” for the future. And not everyone agrees on that plan, or the process.
We welcome the debate, and agree with the governor (and the commission looking at Act 250) that changes must be made. Let’s hope that for the sake of the state — both toward economic development and protecting our natural resources — we can find that balance once again.