Final Reading: Act 250 reform condensed; Budget goes back and forth

This is an excerpt of the special Covid-19 budget session edition of Final Reading compiled by Kit Norton and Xander Landen.


— The Senate got down to business on Wednesday, approving legislation that addresses the impacts of development on forest blocks and sets a framework for managing the state’s recreational trails.

The Democratic-controlled Senate approved a modest 10-page version of H.926, a bill to reform Act 250, Vermont’s 50-year-old land use law. 

After months of discussion in the Senate, interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, senators cut the bill and narrowed the focus to best management practices for trails and outdoor recreation, and began to address forest fragmentation and development patterns that break up natural habitat.The Senate bill establishes new forest block and connecting habitat subcriteria in Act 250, with the goal of avoiding fragmentation of forests and reducing the breakup of any connecting habitat by development.

The trails section of the bill stipulates that trails and “interested parties” in creating trails can continue to operate through the end of December 2021 without an Act 250 review. A working group will report back to the Legislature early next year, and lawmakers are then mandated to create a framework for managing the demands and needs of the different types of trails in the state. 

Of the two proposals, the part of the bill addressing forest fragmentation was far more contentious than the regulation of recreational trails.

The Senate voted 24-6 in favor of sections addressing forests and building development, and there was unanimous support for the portion of the bill addressing trail management. - KN 

— While the upper chamber has completed H.926, the fate of the bill remains unclear as it heads back to the House of Representatives in the waning days before adjournment. On Tuesday, during a Senate Democratic caucus, Bray told his colleagues he’s not sure what will happen to the bill.

“I’ve looked carefully at the calendar, I’ve talked to my colleagues on the other side, but I would never opine on what will happen when it gets there,” he said. - KN

— The Senate's budget pares down the Global Warming Solutions Act appropriation that was in the House budget. 

The House had given GWSA given $586,000 in FY21 — an earlier version of H.688 had also called $386,000 in FY22 — for fees with consultants and experts, but the Senate Appropriations committee cut that to $450,000 for FY21, rationalizing that it wasn't a full fiscal year that needed to be funded. - KN

— The upper chamber's budget also begins planning around where the Legislature may meet in January 2020 if the Statehouse is deemed unsafe due to Covid-19.

One of the possibilities outlined in the budget is the fifth floor of the building at 133 State Street, where the Tax Department is housed.

"The administration is not happy that one of the identified areas is the fifth floor of the 133 State Street building," Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, said on the virtual Senate floor Thursday.

"But from the legislative perspective, it's a building that's, you know, very close to the Statehouse and is currently vacant," Kitchel said. - KN

— The House gave its unanimous support Friday to S.353, which expands the Covid-19 hazard pay program eligibility to grocery and hardware store workers, employees at essential retail businesses and other professions that continued to work throughout the coronavirus state of emergency.

The lower chamber did change the amount of federal Covid-relief funds that would go towards the program. 

The Senate had passed a $19.5 million program in early September, but the House whittled that down to $12.5 million. - KN

— The House and Senate are close to an agreement on S.124, which outlines law enforcement training policies.

House Gov Ops and the Senate counterpart committee are in agreement on the legislation which includes a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology by police until the General Assembly says otherwise as well as mandating that the Vermont Criminal Justice Council craft a statewide policy for body cam use in the upcoming months. - KN

-- The countdown is on as lawmakers have just five more days before the Sept. 25 dealine to agree on a budget and adjourn. The two chambers agree on the majority of the budget and still have time to work out what differences there may be.

The Senate will hold a token session on Saturday to allow bills to be taken up on Monday at 4 p.m. when it will reconvene.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified who uses the offices at 133 State St.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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