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Lawmakers Cut Controversial Part Of Act 250 Bill, Citizen Panels To Still Review Projects

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John Dillon
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VPR File
Lawmakers have rejected a proposal put forward by Peter Walke, left, now the commissioner of Environmental Conservation, and Brian Shupe of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, to assign development review to a professional board.

Lawmakers have scrapped a plan to streamline Act 250 by placing development review in the hands of a professional board.

Instead, House committees have decided to keep the existing system that uses nine citizen commissions to look at how developments impact the environment.

Under the latest version of the bill, Act 250 appeals would still go to the environmental division of Superior Court, instead of straight to the Vermont Supreme Court as an earlier version called for.

More from VPR: Plan To Overhaul Vermont's Act 250 Would Eliminate Regional Review Boards [Jan. 8]

The return to the status quo is part of an overall shift in the legislation as House committees moved to take a more incremental approach to revising Act 250, the state’s 50-year-old development review law.

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Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Rep. Amy Sheldon, a Middlebury Democrat, chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Amy Sheldon, a Democrat from Middlebury, chairs the Natural Resources Committee. She said she’s pleased with the latest changes to the bill.

“I feel better about it," she said. "There’s a lot that’s happening in this bill that’s really important to the future of how we regulate land use in the state of Vermont,” she said. “And I really hope we can move those things forward.”

The bill still exempts from Act 250 review development in downtowns and growth centers. It also strengthens protection for upper elevation areas and unbroken forest habitat.

More from VPR: Poll Shows Voters Support Downtown Development In Midst Of Controversial Act 250 Overhaul [Feb. 18]

But gone from the bill are controversial provisions that were part of an agreement between the Scott administration and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, a statewide environmental group. The two sides met over the summer and proposed legislation that would have eliminated or reduced the role of regional commissions and assigned reviews of major projects to a professional board.

They also supported sending appeals directly to the state Supreme Court.

But because those changes are gone, the Gov. Phil Scott no longer supports the bill according to Peter Walke, the new commissioner of Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We also understand that there is a long way to go left in the legislative process,” Walke said. “We hope to work with the legislature to address the areas of concern.”

The proposal to eliminate or reduce the role of district commissions encountered considerable opposition from environmentalists and citizen activists.

More from VPR: Despite Concerns, House Committee Approves Act 250 Compromise [Feb. 13]

To pay for the new professional review process, the bill would have raised fees. But when the bill went to the House Ways and Means Committee late last week, the committee killed the revenue raising piece.

Rep. James McCullough, a Williston Democrat, serves on the Natural Resources Committee, and he said he was glad the committee blocked the controversial professional review board idea.

“None of the majority really felt good about that,” he said. “And whenever you go down the road the wrong way, you can always turn around. And we developed a consensus that Ways and Means helped us turn around.”

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