A sharply divided House committee agreed to a series of sweeping changes to Vermont’s landmark land-use law Thursday, including a controversial provision that would limit the power of volunteer district commissions.
The 94-page draft bill still has a long way to go to become law. But its approval by the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee marked a significant milestone in the nearly two-year-long effort to modernize Act 250.
Even the bill’s supporters, however, acknowledged that changes to the 50-year-old law represent a compromise that won’t please everyone.
“I would do this a different way, but it’s politics. It’s the art of the possible,” said committee chair Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury). “We have to make compromises that meet people’s needs, and that’s what we’ve done.”
She was referring largely to the decision to strip the nine volunteer district commissions of their ability to decide the fate of complex projects.
Instead, a five-member statewide Natural Resources Board made up of three new full-time commissioners plus two commissioners from the region where a project is proposed would call the shots. Local commissions would still preside over minor Act 250 permits that are typically less controversial.
The change to a professional board structure is viewed by some as necessary given the complexity of development review and environmental regulations.
“Eighty percent of Act 250 applications will see absolutely no change, but the big, complicated projects will get greater scrutiny, with more resources for the board to do their job,” said Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, which lobbied hard for the changes.
Concerned that the bill was hopelessly mired in the House committee last year, VNRC worked with officials from the state Agency of Natural Resources to draft a compromise that originally called for the elimination of the local commissions.
After a hue and cry, the committee partially restored their roles. But Ed Stanak, a retired district coordinator, called this “window dressing.”
“Yes, district commissions are still in the bill, but really it’s a hollow gesture, a cynical gesture, in name only,” Stanak said.
Rep. Paul Lefebvre (R-Newark) voted against the bill because it didn’t resolve for him whether people with trails on their properties would have to comply with Act 250 provisions. But mostly, he said, he was concerned with the loss of local control.
“I just continued to see an erosion of the district commission powers and authorities, and I think it’s to the detriment of citizens and residents of given areas,” Lefebvre said.
He noted that while the official vote was 6-3 in favor, had all members been present, it would have been 6-5.
Sheldon said the committee worked hard to preserve the district commissions, require pre-application meetings with neighbors and ensure the two local commissioners had full voting rights on the state board.
She understands concerns that the proposed state board would be more formal and, possibly, part of a more intimidating process for residents, but efforts were made to make it as inclusive as possible, she said.
Sending cases straight to a state board, whose decisions could be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, would eliminate lower-court review that many said was time-consuming and duplicative.
The bill now heads to at least two other house committees for their review before the Senate begins considering it, something Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) expects would be “a heavy lift.”
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