A key House committee Thursday approved a major overhaul of Act 250, Vermont’s development review law.
After more than a year of work, the House Natural Resources Committee voted 6-3 to approve big changes to how Vermont reviews and directs development. Two members were absent.
The bill would exempt from Act 250 review developments in designated downtowns. It would increase protections to wildlife connector areas and makes projects above 2,000 feet subject to Act 250 review.
Middlebury Democrat Amy Sheldon chairs the natural resources committee. She said the committee’s work represents a compromise.
“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,” she said.
The bill builds on an agreement reached between Gov. Phil Scott’s administration and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, a statewide environmental group.
Brian Shupe, executive director of VNRC, said the legislation is an improvement because it will limit fragmentation of Vermont forests through piecemeal development.
“I think the most important piece is the expanded criteria to protect forests and wildlife habitat and address climate change,” he said.
But critics faulted both the process that led to the bill – the negotiation between VNRC and the administration – and the end product.
Under the legislation, developments would be reviewed by a professional, quasi-judicial board, instead of a panel of local citizens named by the governor. Ed Stanak, who worked three decades for the state as an Act 250 coordinator, said the changes will make it harder for ordinary citizens to participate.
“The average Vermonter for 50 years has been able to participate in growth decisions and protecting ecosystems in Vermont,” he said. “This is unbelievable. VNRC should be ashamed for proposing that.”
If that change prevails, Stanak said, the law should no longer be called Act 250.
“Act 250 will be finished as of July 1, 2020,” he said, referring to the date the bill would go into effect. “It’ll be dead.”
Shupe of VNRC said the new professional board will have two regional members, so local input should be preserved. He defended the process that led to the legislative compromise.
“We worked not only with the administration, but a lot of different people, including Ed [Stanak], to get information and understand what their concerns or thoughts would be,” he said.
The bill also eliminates a step in the appeals process, since challenges to Act 250 decisions would no longer go to the environmental division of superior court, but rather straight to the state supreme court.
The legislation now will be reviewed by other committees before a vote by the full House.
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