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Plan To Overhaul Vermont's Act 250 Would Eliminate Regional Review Boards

People sit at a desk with people behind them.
John Dillon
/
VPR File
Vermont's Deputy Natural Resources Secretary Peter Walke, left, and Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, unveiled a plan Tuesday to overhaul Act 250, the state's landmark development review law.

The Scott administration and a leading environmental group have agreed on sweeping changes to Act 250, Vermont's development control law.

The proposals include streamlined review for projects in designated downtowns and eliminating the local commissions that now are the first hurdle for developments.

The recommendations were presented in joint testimony Tuesday to the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee by the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Deputy Natural Resources Secretary Peter Walke. But some lawmakers pushed back against the idea of doing away with the nine regional district commissions. They said the deal was struck without their involvement, and would gut the citizen-based nature of Act 250.

Act 250 was passed in 1970 in response to growing resort development, primarily at ski areas in southern Vermont. The law requires that major projects be evaluated under 10 broad environmental criteria, including impacts on water quality, air pollution and transportation.

Projects are reviewed by the regional commissions, whose members are appointed by the governor.

More from VPR: Acting On Act 250? Legislation Stalled As Vt. Lawmakers Take Long View On Development [April 26, 2019]

The Scott administration and VNRC met throughout the summer and fall and reached consensus on a package of Act 250 updates, including the proposal to eliminate the district commissions and replace them with a professional board that would include regional representatives.

Brian Shupe, the executive director of VNRC, told the committee Tuesday that this would be a huge but necessary shift in how the landmark law operates.

“That's [a] very, very significant change, eliminating the district commissions, replacing them with a professional board, an enhanced Natural Resources Board with district or regional representation for major reviews,” he said. “And that would eliminate a step in the appeal process.”

Under the proposal, appeals would go directly to Vermont Supreme Court instead of environmental court.

Lawmakers have revised Act 250 several times in its 50 year history. A legislative panel spent 18 months in 2018 and 2019 looking at ways to re-shape Act 250 so the law would be more responsive to current environmental challenges, such as climate change and forest fragmentation.

"We never heard this proposal before we came here today... We've been on this for 18 months, and all of a sudden we're presented with this very, very profound change in Act 250." — Rep. Paul Lefebvre of Newark

Rep. Paul Lefebvre, a Newark Republican and vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, served on the commission that studied Act 250's future. He raised questions about the proposal to eliminate the role of regional district commissions.

“We never heard this proposal before we came here today,” Lefebvre said. “I was on the [study] commission. We've been on this for 18 months, and all of a sudden we're presented with this very, very profound change in Act 250, to do away with district commissions, to do away with basically what a lot of people say is the avenue where they can have some local say in projects. So yeah, I'm a little concerned.”

Another member of the committee, Rep. James McCullough, D- Williston, asked who Walke and Shupe consulted as they developed the proposal.

“Did you get feedback from the people you worked with about this particular change, other than myself, who said that it eviscerates Act 250’s original intent?” McCullough asked.

Shupe said they heard from a variety of people as they worked on the plan. “We did get feedback from some — I’m not going to represent anyone other than VNRC,” he said.

“And, like you, it was a mixed bag. Among some folks, it has support and [with others] it doesn’t,” Shupe added. “Our perception is that the appeals process is not accessible. It’s time consuming and it’s expensive, and this is a way to resolve that while still maintaining regionalism and more professionalism in the review process.”

"Our perception is that the appeals process is not accessible. It's time consuming and it's expensive, and this is a way to resolve that while still maintaining regionalism and more professionalism in the review process." — Brian Shupe, Vermont Natural Resources Council

But Lefebvre told Shupe and Walke he felt that lawmakers had been cut out of the process. “We are the legislators, we are the ones that supposedly write policy and all of a sudden we’re presented with something like a fait accompli,” he said. “I just feel we’re being left out of this process.”

House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee Chair Amy Sheldon, a Middlebury Democrat, said the administration and VNRC had kept her up to date on their work.

“We will be reviewing this. This is the single biggest new thing in this proposal,” Sheldon said. “And I understand that this may need more vetting than we are capable of doing in this session.”

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