Now almost 50 years old, the Land Use and Development Act known as Act 250 has been largely successful in preventing suburban sprawl as well as preserving the forests and farms that are such a prominent part of the Vermont landscape and identity. But that success has been costly, adding considerable expense in time and money to large commercial projects and to housing projects with more than ten units.
Over time, the Legislature has established designated downtowns and designated growth areas where priority housing projects receive a number of incentives including an exemption from Act 250.
The 30 unit Taylor Street project in downtown Montpelier didn’t need an Act 250 permit because of its downtown location and because it provides affordable housing. If this project had to go through the Act 250 process, the developers estimate that it would have cost at least $60,000 in permit fees and consultant charges and delayed the project by five months.
In 2017, the Vermont Legislature created a six person commission with the aspirational goal of ensuring that over the next 50 years, Act 250 will support Vermont’s economic, environmental and land use planning goals. The Legislature is currently reviewing the commission’s report.
As someone who’s taken an active interest in the regional economy, and especially in affordable housing, I hope the legislature will focus on those recommendations that will make the Act 250 process and enforcement as streamlined and predictable as possible.
I still remember the nine year struggle to build affordable housing in Woodstock. We learned how easy it is for opponents to use Act 250 to delay a project. Every time the neighbors appealed some aspect of the project to the Environmental Court, it delayed the start of construction for at least a year.
The challenge for the legislature is to continue to use Act 250 to protect the environment while making it less time consuming and costly to build commercial and residential projects in the right places.