Acting On Act 250? Legislation Stalled As Vt. Lawmakers Take Long View On Development
A bill designed to modernize Act 250, Vermont’s half-century old development review law, won’t get voted on this year.
Both the Scott administration and legislative leaders made the Act 250 overhaul a top priority for the session, and a House committee has worked on the bill almost full time since January. But the ensuing debate exposed thorny issues over environmental protection and land use that remain unresolved.
One example of the complexities confronting the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife came this week as the committee heard from operators of slate quarries in Rutland County. The industry executives, along with the Rutland County delegation, were there to argue that many of these mining operations should continue to enjoy an Act 250 exemption.
Chris Smid, president of New England Slate, in Poultney, compared his business to other Vermont icons.
“Just like maple syrup and Ben & Jerry’s, Vermont is known for its world-class, all natural, hand-crafted slate and stone products,” Smid told the packed committee room.
But neighbors have complained about truck traffic, blasting and other impacts from reopened mines not covered by Act 250. A draft of the bill would restore Act 250 oversight, and the industry opposes that provision.
“My colleagues and I were discouraged by some of the language taken in the draft legislation but were very encouraged by the draft letter of April 5 requesting the formation of a stakeholder group,” Smid said.
Under Act 250, local commissions review larger developments for their impacts on water quality, air pollution, traffic and other environmental criteria. Pre-existing slate quarries – even if they were idle for decades – were largely exempted in the 1990s.
But just like the overall bill itself, the slate quarry issue will not get resolved this year. Instead, both will get more study and more deliberation.
"It's important to think about the bigger picture of: 50 years from now, what's the Vermont we want to live in?" — Rep. Amy Sheldon, House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife chair
“There’s outstanding things that we can work on, and we’re hoping to, you know, move the bill early in the next session,” said Rep. Amy Sheldon, the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife.
The Middlebury Democrat also chaired a commission on Act 250’s future that spent 18 months looking at the law and possible changes. The commission report was the starting point for this year’s legislative discussion.
Sheldon said despite that extensive groundwork, she’s not surprised that the legislative process got complicated.
“There’s four new members, and I’m a new chair. Was I expecting it? Yeah, I mean at the end when we put the report together … it’s like a puzzle, and we’re piecing it together,” Sheldon said. “When we're thinking about the future of the state of Vermont’s landscape, we had a lot of things to add and some things to fix — and so, yeah, I guess I was expecting the complexity.”
The legislative delay is disappointing for both the business community and environmentalists. Real estate developer Ernie Pomerleau served as an adviser to the Act 250 study commission, and he offered a number of recommendations that he and other developers supported.
“There are ways to help refine it, make it more efficient, faster and better,” Pomerleau said.
Yet Pomerleau hasn’t even testified on the bill, although he does have a lobbyist tracking its progress. Pomerleau was hoping for a few key changes. One would lighten Act 250 review in downtown areas targeted for growth or redevelopment; the committee is moving in that direction.
However the committee did not go for another change the developers wanted that would have given more legal weight to various state agency environmental permits in Act 250 cases.
Sheldon’s committee also changed the appeals process for Act 250. Appeals currently go to the Environmental Court, but the bill would direct those appeals to a board that would also oversee the administrative functions of the law.
Pomerleau sees that as a step backward.
“This has to remain legal,” Pomerleau said of the appeals process. “And if it goes to a citizen board again it becomes political. It has to be apolitical.”
"This has to remain legal. And if [an Act 250 appeal] goes to a citizen board again it becomes political. It has to be apolitical." — Ernie Pomerleau, developer
Brian Shupe, the execuive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said what Pomerleau views as a step backwards would be similar to a previous system that environmentalists believe worked well. Appeals used to be handled by a nine-member Environmental Board appointed by the governor.
"That resulted in more consistency and better administration of the process overall," Shupe said.
The draft bill would direct appeals to a semi-professional board, structured somewhat like the Public Utility Commission. That language is now being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee.
Shupe is also disappointed — but not surprised — that the overall Act 250 bill is being delayed.
“It’s a very complex set of issues, so taking their time, allowing for stakeholders to do more work over the summer to ask some questions of the Agency of Natural Resources regarding some of the environmental criteria, that’s probably a prudent move on the part of the committee,” Shupe said.
Committee chair Sheldon said she’s trying to keep her eye on the fundamental challenge behind the committee’s work: how to update Act 250 to address 21st-century environmental challenges, such as climate change and habitat protection.
“It’s important to think about the bigger picture of: 50 years from now, what’s the Vermont we want to live in?” Sheldon said.
And if you're looking a half-century ahead, taking another year to work on it doesn’t seem that long.