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Act 250 revision meetings scheduled

The state government is gathering opinions on how Vermont’s environment should be protected in the coming half-century.

With the 50th anniversary of Act 250 approaching, the Legislature has created a commission to look at how the law should be tweaked for the next 50 years. That commission announced this week the dates for a series of forums around the state to gather public input on potential changes to Vermont’s landmark environmental law, which was adopted in 1970.

The commission doesn’t make it to Rutland until Sept. 5. The series begins at 6 p.m. June 27 in Springfield. Other dates include July 11 in Manchester, July 25 in Randolph, Aug. 22 in Island Pond and concluding Sept. 10 in Burlington

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, who is serving as head of the commission, said she expects the discussion at the forums to be “high-level,” but that the state will also conduct a survey offering a “deeper dive” for people directly involved with the Act 250 process.

“We’re looking at multiple avenues and different levels for Vermonters to plug in and give their feedback,” she said.

Sheldon said certain likely areas of discussion were already apparent.

“Things that have changed are our understanding and awareness of climate change,” she said. “We have a lot more natural resource information. Is there a way to be using that to make more informed decisions about protecting the environment while still having diverse economic development?”

Sandra Levine, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said directly addressing climate change would be a welcome tweak to the law. She also said there needed to be fewer exemptions to Act 250.

“I think, fundamentally, good projects do not have a problem satisfying the Act 250 criteria and it’s good for all major projects to take a look at them,” she said.

Levine said it would be helpful for the law to have more of a focus on broad, statewide impacts in addition to local ones.

Also, Sheldon said she expected a hard look at details about how Act 250 is administered.

“We need to make sure we’re resourcing Act 250 district commissions appropriately and make sure permitting agencies are responding promptly,” she said.

Sheldon said development required fewer overall permits when Act 250 was adopted, and it was worth looking at the relationships between the different permitting process.

Tyler Richardson, interim director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp., said the administrative side was an area where he saw room for improvement. Richardson said that criticism of Act 250 is often met with statistics showing that most Act 250 applications are approved, but he said those are misleading.

“The numbers are vastly skewed by the Burlington and Chittenden County areas,” he said. “A lot of times, things are handled administratively differently from one area to another. … I can’t find the exact numbers, but it’s something like $250 million (worth of development approved) for Chittenden County versus $5 million for Rutland.”

Richardson said he did not think business and environmental interests are necessarily at odds in the process.

“Obviously, Vermont is a brand, an important brand we need to protect,” he said. “Our focus isn’t just on development, it’s on development that protects our environment, protects our brand.”