After a widely predicted floor fight did not materialize, senators on Friday came together, and, by a vote of 27-2, passed a wide-ranging housing bill intended to ease regulatory barriers to building.
Initially put forward in an attempt to make major changes to Act 250, Vermont’s landmark land-use law, and to force municipalities to allow denser housing in areas served by critical infrastructure, the bill, S.100, now largely only does the latter.
Those local changes, however, would not be minor. The “Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone,” or HOME bill, would effectively ban single-family zoning, allowing duplexes anywhere that currently only permits single-family homes. In areas served by water and sewer, tri- and four-plexes would also be allowed, and municipalities would also need to allow at least five units to be built per acre.
But Gov. Phil Scott’s administration, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, the business community, and home builders have also been clamoring for significant revisions to Act 250, arguing that the 50-year-old law has stymied desperately needed development.
Fierce debate in the chamber’s committee rooms has mainly focused on the so-called “10-5-5” rule. Act 250 review is triggered when someone attempts to build at least 10 units of housing within five years and a five-mile radius, and the bill initially sought to increase that threshold to 25 units.
But a key constituency — environmentalists — have been adamantly opposed to the state-level reforms contemplated in the original bill. And they pushed lawmakers to delay any changes until reviews of Act 250, already commissioned by lawmakers, come back next year.
Following revisions in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, the bill that advanced out of the chamber Friday does agree to the 25-unit threshold — but only in certain designated areas. And just as significantly, that new 25-unit threshold would sunset in 2026.
But those areas only total about 41 square miles statewide, according to the administration. And for those calling for significant revisions or exemptions to Act 250, that’s not nearly enough.
“I think that reforms to Act 250 aren't allowed in 99.7% of Vermont and that it’s a little Pollyanna-ish to think that we're going to address our housing problems by only focusing on 0.3% of Vermont,” said Josh Hanford, Scott’s housing commissioner.
Those on both sides of the issue had spent the week furiously lobbying for and against a floor amendment expected Friday from Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden Southeast. That amendment would have re-introduced the 25-unit threshold for all towns with zoning regulations, which would have covered a little over half of the state. It also would have sunsetted after three years.
But by Friday, what was expected to be a close vote gave way to surrender. The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden Southeast, who had initially sought the new 25-unit threshold statewide, offered her own amendment on the floor — to turn Chittenden’s proposal into a study.
“I can't deny that this could probably lead to some really good infill projects,” she said of her colleague’s proposal, before adding that she also couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t lead to a larger project on a “hillside or in a view scape but it's really important to an entire community.”
“And something like that could really set back our ability to have a conversation about advancing stronger smart growth and more housing in the coming years,” she said.
Chittenden accepted Ram Hinsdale’s amendment, which essentially nullified his. And in his floor speech to his colleagues, he repeatedly stressed that, despite his desire for more aggressive deregulation, he still strongly supported the underlying bill.
“I regret taking away any of the applause that is dedicated to and should be given to S.100,” he said. “This is a great bill. I look forward to supporting it.”
Brian Shupe, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said after the vote that the environmental group was “pleased” by the outcome.
“We're especially pleased that the Chittenden amendment was not added to it,” he said. “That was a great concern to us and we think the Senate did the right thing to replace that with a different amendment that looks at that issue as part of a larger study that's underway.”
The bill next heads to the House.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.