Republican Gov. Phil Scott vetoed Act 250 reform legislation Monday that would have set up best management practices for trails and outdoor recreation, while beginning to address forest fragmentation and development patterns that break up natural habitat.
The bill, H.926, is now dead, and no changes will be made to the state’s 50-year-old land use law in 2020 after the Legislature adjourned last week without setting a veto override session.
“With this bill, the Legislature has created more regulatory uncertainty, not less,” Scott said in his message to lawmakers on his 20th veto in his four years as governor.
“Nothing in this bill modernizes or improves the Act 250 process — something that is widely agreed to be necessary after fifty years of existence,” the governor added.
Although Scott vetoed the measure, he signed an executive order that mandates recreational trail management.
The governor’s executive order directs the Agency of Natural Resources to begin establish a best management, practice-based program that can also facilitate compliance with Act 250 criteria if a trail network is required to obtain a permit. It also requires the agency to report back on any legislative changes needed to promote high quality recreational trails that support the recreation economy.
Scott’s decision to reject the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s work on Act 250 reform puts an end to what was a tortured process to amend the law during the last two legislative sessions.
In late February, the Vermont House voted 88-52 to approve an Act 250 reform proposal that was nearly 50 pages long. But Covid-19 put the measure on the back burner in the Senate as lawmakers focused on the pandemic and distributing federal relief money.
When the upper chamber finally approved its version of H.926 on Sept. 16, the bill had been whittled down to just 10 pages and was narrowly focused to best management practices for trails and outdoor recreation, and forest fragmentation and development patterns that break up natural habitat.
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The bill established a new forest block and connecting habitat subcriteria in Act 250, with the goal of avoiding fragmentation of forests and preventing development from breaking up connecting habitat.
The outdoor recreation section stipulated that trails and “interested parties” in creating trail networks could continue to operate through the end of December 2021 without an Act 250 review.
A working group would then report back to the Legislature early next year, and lawmakers were then mandated to create a framework for managing the demands and needs of the different types of trails in the state.
In both the Senate and the House, the portion of the bill addressing forest fragmentation was more contentious than the regulation of recreational trails.
Senate Republicans split the two aspects of the legislation, portending the governor’s ultimate decision, and tried to vote down the forest fragmentation regulation.
In the House, Democrats shot down two Republican amendments to the proposal on Sept. 25 before voting 93-57 — seven votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto — to agree with the Senate on the proposal.
“We have done so much work to find a compromise here and to lose it right at the end would be really disappointing after all of the hard work that’s been done,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, at the time.
“I can reassure members that next year if I’m back in this position, Act 250 is something that is definitely going to be a priority and I think we have a lot more work to do,” she added.
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