This commentary is by state Rep. Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester, who represents the towns of Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and part of Sunderland. He serves on the Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Scott vetoed S.234, a bill to improve the governance of Act 250, Vermont’s landmark land use law, and to protect our forests from fragmentation. Vermonters will pay a price for the lack of vision underpinning this veto.
Because the Natural Resources Board exists in name only, Act 250 is rudderless and has been since the elimination of the former Environmental Board in 2004. Gov. Scott effectively said this at the beginning of this biennium when he tried to create a professional board by decree.
While he was unsuccessful with that effort, S.234 followed his lead and sought to create a new, professional Environmental Review Board. The differences between the two proposals are that the Legislature sought to insulate the board from political pressure, while the governor’s board would have effectively been an arm of the executive and highly subject to interference.
To encourage geographic representation, we had a full-time chair and four half-time members, while he had three full-time members (both of which come to three full-time equivalents). And his board would have heard so-called major Act 250 cases, while ours would have heard appeals of District Commission decisions, rather than those being sent to the Environmental Court.
Vermont is fast becoming a haven for people able to work remotely, including climate-change refugees. This trend is only going to accelerate as the South and West bake, burn and run out of water. While this influx of people, their skills and their kids can be good for us, we need to be ready to handle the accompanying pressures on our rural landscape.
When the development boom hit us in the 1960s, we were not prepared. We finally responded with Act 250, which saved us from the leveling of natural resources many other states have experienced. We are again unprepared, but this time we can at least see it coming.
Vermont needs the professional Environmental Review Board envisioned by S.234 to develop deep expertise and to think systemically about how development in the right places can benefit our citizens, while avoiding sprawl and the destruction of natural resources that comes with unplanned development that chews up the countryside.
We have none of that deep thinking or leadership under the current system. We are paying the price.
By way of alarming example, Vermont is losing 15,000 acres of forestland a year — the equivalent of 14,000 football fields — to development. How development occurs in our forests really matters, since our economy is directly tied to the maintenance of rural working forests and intact lands that drive our recreation and tourism economy.
Our forests define our state, which is why the Legislature has commissioned three reports on ways to maintain the integrity of our forests. An overarching theme is that we should, at the very least, promote thoughtful site design as we continue to build in our forests, while at the same time making it easier to build housing in downtowns and designated growth centers.
Opponents claim that having appeals of District Environmental Commission decisions go to the new Environmental Review Board, rather than the Environmental Court, would make it harder to get through the process, mostly on the grounds that it will no longer be possible to have a single court hear both local permitting cases and Act 250 cases heard at the same time. That misses the mark.
First, out of the dozens and dozens of Act 250 permit applications filed each year, local and Act 250 appeals are consolidated only once or, at most, twice a year. Second, it ignores the fact that, on average, it takes more than a year to have a case heard by the Environmental Court, because its docket is so crowded with municipal permitting and Agency of Natural Resources appeals.
By contrast, a professional Environmental Review Board will be ready to hear Act 250 appeals immediately. It will, in the vast majority of cases, speed the appeal process. Additionally, by issuing decisions designed not only to answer the immediate question, but also to provide guidance to district commissions, we will begin to see more uniform outcomes at the district level, which will, over time, lessen the number of appeals filed, as both developers and district commissions will know the guiding principles in advance.
A functional Act 250 benefits everybody. S.234 would have made the wheels of the process turn effectively and efficiently. And, the professional Environmental Review Board would have become the thought leader we so desperately need to make sure the coming influx of residents are a beneficial resource, as opposed to what we experienced in the 1960s and often today.
We cannot let fear of change undermine the chance to fix the obvious insufficiencies of the current system.