House lawmakers passed a series of changes Friday to Vermont’s decades-old land use law after two days of contentious floor debate and last-minute bill amendments.
In a vote of 88 to 52, representatives gave preliminary approval to H.926 almost three years after lawmakers formally began a review of how to “modernize” Act 250 in advance of its 50th anniversary.
Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said on the floor Thursday night that the bill “strikes a balance” between increasing Act 250 jurisdiction to protect certain natural resources while “releasing” certain town and village centers from review.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, hailed the bill as a “significant part of our climate change agenda and also promotes our shared goal of protecting our natural resources.”
The bill now heads to the Senate. Gov. Phil Scott has expressed reservations about it.
Two of the more controversial provisions of the bill — creating a statewide project review board and lowering the elevation trigger for Act 250 review from 2,500 to 2,000 feet — were eliminated before the final House floor vote. Scott said at his weekly press conference this week that he supports the elevation change, which impacts thousands of existing structures in Vermont.
The legislation exempts state-designated downtowns and neighborhood development areas from Act 250 review, with the aim of promoting compact development. Village centers also have a “path forward” for exemption, provided they have local zoning regulations and other requirements in place, said Dolan.
At the start of the session, the Scott administration and the Vermont Natural Resources Council proposed an Act 250 reform package that has come under fire from some environmentalists and former district commissioners. A cornerstone of that package was a new three-member statewide board that would replace district commission review of major projects.
Republicans lawmakers were critical of what proposed changes to the Act 250 review criteria would mean for their districts.
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Under the legislation, developers must show that projects meet “climate adaptation” criteria. Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, interrogated Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield, Thursday evening about how Act 250 applicants would do that.
Dolan responded that “what this criteria does is recognize that when we build smarter, when we build with greater resilience to the impacts of extreme weather … that we are doing so to make our people and our communities safer.”
Higley said while that “sounds good” in theory, the bill does not spell out specific requirements.
“The individual might put in a three-foot culvert … but is that going to be enough or is that going to be requiring a bridge” to address future climate conditions, he asked. The Natural Resources Board and the Act 250 program manager would provide guidance for compliance with new criteria, Dolan said.
One of the least controversial amendments was a proposal to clarify that trails on private land are not under Act 250 jurisdiction while the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation moves ahead over the next couple of years with a new trail management program.
Rep. Paul Lefebvre, R-Newark, vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, voted against the bill in committee. But he said on Friday that the trails provision and lack of changes to the district commissions convinced him to vote for the bill on the House floor.
“I find a much stronger bill today, one I can easily support,” Lefebvre said.
Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, commended committee members for adding “environmental justice” to the project criteria and for requiring a review of Act 250’s impact on racial equity and diversity.
Environmental firebrand James Ehlers, president of Lake Champlain International, took to Twitter to describe the exemption of development in certain floodplains from Act 250 review as “Irene amnesia.”
“Our real need is to prevent further declines in water quality,” Ehlers wrote.
Rep. Thomas Bock, D-Chester, failed an attempt Friday to postpone the vote until after Town Meeting Day week. Bock had hoped to explain the changes to his constituents before the House approved the reforms.
Brooke Dingledine, a Vermont land use attorney who has followed the efforts to reform Act 250, described the Scott-VNRC intervention as a “hijacking” of the reform process in an interview Friday. Dingledine said that she had been prevented from testifying to the committee for weeks despite other new witnesses being allowed to speak.
“This bill is half-baked,” she said. “And these little pieces and parts that are put in there, I think, are largely optics.”
Before casting a no vote Friday, Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, said he originally had “high hopes” that the reforms would simplify Act 250 review.
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“I’m going to have to go home and tell these folks, you know what, we failed,” he said.
Whether or not the governor will support the bill now that the statewide review board has been removed remains an open question. At a press conference Friday, he said that while that was not a “deal breaker,” he finds other parts of the bill to be “problematic.” Scott cited the lower elevation trigger as an example, although that was removed from the final bill.
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