Poll Shows Voters Support Downtown Development In Midst Of Controversial Act 250 Overhaul
As lawmakers work to overhaul Act 250 — the state's main development review law — registered voters support easing environmental review for developments in Vermont's downtowns, according to a new VPR - Vermont PBS poll.
Yet the downtown provision is one of the least controversial aspects of an Act 250 rewrite now winding its way through the Legislature. A House committee spent weeks wrangling over who would review projects, how projects are appealed and the very nature of Act 250 itself.
Karen Horn is the longtime director of policy and advocacy at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. She testified in favor of the downtown part of the bill, noting her organization has long supported easing development restrictions in the state’s 23 designated downtowns, such as Newport, Barre or Brattleboro.
“We think it just makes sense to not have that duplicative review if you really do want to direct development to downtowns,” Horn said.
The duplication happens when projects go through local zoning or other municipal review and then are also scrutinized under Act 250. The 50-year-old law evaluates projects for their impacts on 10 broad environmental and social criteria.
According to the VPR - Vermont PBS 2020 Poll conducted from Feb. 4 to Feb. 10, 65% of those surveyed agree with Horn and think making downtown development easier is the right way to go.
Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, was not surprised.
“The alternative is development out in the countryside, so I think most Vermonters would probably support that kind of smart growth development that makes our downtowns more viable,” he said.
Shupe made the comment in the Statehouse cafeteria last week, just minutes after a divided House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife approved the 94-page bill that overhauls Act 250. After more than a year of working on Act 250 revisions, the committee bill includes minor tweaks and major changes to who reviews projects and how decisions are appealed.
One of the biggest changes is aimed at adding a level of professional review to what is now a citizen-based process.
Major projects are currently reviewed by nine regional commissions, made up of volunteers appointed by the governor. The bill would instead give that power to a quasi-judicial, five-member Natural Resources Board, with two members coming from the region where a project is proposed.
"This is a disaster waiting to happen... Please, think about the Vermonters who are going to be harmed, lose the value of their property and have no review process where their concerns, their voices are actually going to be heard." — Act 250 lawyer Brooke Dingledine
Brooke Dingledine, a lawyer who has represented both developers and project opponents in Act 250 cases, drove over from Randolph in a blinding snowstorm to testify against that change. She said it would make the process too legalistic, and harder for ordinary people to navigate.
“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” she said. "I implore you, please, think about the Vermonters who are going to be harmed, lose the value of their property and have no review process where their concerns, their voices are actually heard,” she said.
Ed Stanak, who for 32 years worked as a district environmental coordinator administering Act 250 in central Vermont, said the citizen-based nature of Act 250 review is the heart and soul of the law.
“That is the process through which the average Vermonter for 50 years has been able to participate in growth decisions and protecting ecosystems in Vermont,” he said.
The bill is the result of a compromise worked out by the Scott administration and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, two sides that are not always natural allies. Stanak said VNRC bargained away the citizen-based essence of the landmark law.
“Why not leave the process as it is?” he asked. “More fundamentally, it takes it out of the hands of the district commission, user-friendly process."
As the committee voted on the bill, he held up a hand-lettered sign that said: “Fake Legislative Process.”
Stanak said the administration and VNRC argued that the district commission process was flawed because Act 250 decisions issued by various commissions were inconsistent and unpredictable.
“And when asked to provide proof of that, they moved on from that to other rationales, not an iota of proof of inconsistency,” he said. “Therefore this whole process became a fake legislative process.”
Shupe, the executive director of VNRC, said his organization wanted to keep the district commissions as is. But that position did not prevail in the negotiations with the Scott administration.
“Unfortunately, when you have legislation that has a broad support, you sometimes need to make compromises,” he said.
Still, Shupe said there’s a lot for environmentalists to like in the bill.
“I think the most important piece is the expanded criteria to protect forests and wildlife habitat and address climate change,” he said.
"I think the most important piece is the expanded criteria to protect forests and wildlife habitat and address climate change." — Brian Shupe, Vermont Natural Resources Council
The legislation aims to prevent forest fragmentation and protect upper elevation regions. Under the bill, developments above 2,000 feet would fall under Act 250.
Amy Sheldon is the Middlebury Democrat who chairs the Natural Resources Committee. She also cited the forest protection piece as a major improvement.
“Politics is the art of the possible. And we have to make compromises to get stuff done,” she said. “We have come up with a balanced bill that ... increases protections to Vermont’s environment, while also addressing some of the administrative concerns that have been brought to us throughout this process.”
Sheldon said lawmakers heard the concerns that the bill would make the process less user-friendly, so lawmakers made changes to help people who want to represent themselves in Act 250.
“I’ll say we addressed that in a couple of ways. There’s a pre-hearing meeting that we now have, and everybody thinks that’s a good idea,” she said. “And I think it’s going to address for those contested cases that do happen, it’ll get neighbors involved earlier in understanding the process.”
The bill also changes Act 250 appeals. Appeals would no longer go to the environmental division of superior court for a new review with witnesses and testimony if needed. Instead they would directly to the Vermont Supreme Court, and no new evidence would be allowed. They would be decided on the record compiled by the Natural Resources Board.
Dingledine, the lawyer with years of Act 250 experience, had strong words for that change as well. She said appeals should be done de novo, meaning a new case with potentially new evidence.
“If you’re going to do it this way [as called for in the bill], then it’s on the record, appeal only to the Supreme Court. That is the madness,” she said. “You must give a de novo review.”
The bill still has a long way to go. It must stop in several other House committees before moving on to a vote by the full House. If the House approves it, debate in the Senate will begin.
From Feb. 4 to Feb. 10, the VPR - Vermont PBS 2020 Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters how they felt about various political candidates and issues. Explore the full results here.