Markowitz: Modernizing Act 250

Feb 13, 2019

A lot has changed since Act 250, Vermont’s state land use law, was first passed in 1970. At the time, the legislature and governor worried that the recently completed interstate highway would bring an influx of new residents and second home owners. They believed that unless they created rules to control growth, Vermont’s rural landscape would be destroyed.

Now, a half-century later, we see that the architects of Vermont’s land use laws were right. Vermont’s population grew from 440,000 in the 1970s to 665,000 today, and land development exceeded this rate of growth by as much as six times, reflecting the importance of second home owners to the state. Despite this growth, Act 250 largely succeeded in preventing speculative development and urban sprawl and we’ve retained our traditional settlement pattern of compact village centers surrounded by working lands – farms and forests.

But despite this success, some aspects of Act 250 are outdated. For example, climate change, renewable energy and stormwater pollution were not big issues in 1970. While there was concern about preventing sprawl, there wasn’t an equal focus on making it easier to build in downtowns and village centers. Also, because Act 250 primarily regulates large developments, over the years many thousands of small parcels of land have been carved out of Vermont’s forests, flood plains and farm fields. We now understand that this type of development can disproportionately impact the rural economy, water quality, flood resilience, and forest and ecological health.

This legislative session the environmental committees will be considering a host of changes to Act 250. Many recommendations came from a legislative commission that spent more than a year studying the issue. These include new standards for large development, relaxation of rules in downtowns and village centers and new protections for key natural areas like river corridors, agricultural land and forest blocks.

It’s possible to balance landowner’s interests with the need to preserve our rural landscape, including the critical resource areas that provide communities with economic, health and environmental benefits. They got it right in 1970; and now we need to thoughtfully update Act 250 so that in 50 years our grandchildren will look back and be proud of what we accomplished.