Assessing Priorities Act 250 for Vermont or Local Permit Reform for Middlebury?

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Kelsey Rinehart

In recent years, Act 250, Vermont’s 30-year-old land use development law, has been the subject of intense debate and ceaseless media coverage. In his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, now-Governor James Douglas ’72 ran on a platform that included restructuring Act 250. Douglas, who vowed to make Vermont more business-friendly, embarked on his so-called permit reform tour. He is now pushing the State Legislature to reform the permit process before the end of the 2003 legislative year. On April 11, the legislature took a step in that direction, much to the dismay of Democrats.
Douglas’ drive for reform was answered when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill that would reform local zoning regulations. To this bill was attached an entire Senate bill that had not been debated in House committees before it passed, causing a sharp divide along party lines among senators.

Legislators Praise the Decision

The Senate bill that was speedily attached, was the result of a two-year study on contractors’ problems in building, and attempts to streamline the permit appeal process, which many see as old and confusing, forming a single body – an Environmental Court – responsible for appeals. The bill would thus replace five appeals forums.
It could also allow more people to participate in the processes and encourage those who are interested in appealing a permit, whether local or state, to become involved earlier in the review process. Sen. Gerry Gossens (D- Addision), one of the bills chief proponents, said, “We see this as the first step toward real permit reform, not political permit reform.”
Gossens was harking on Douglas’ earlier comment that local permit reform was “not as urgent” as reforming Act 250. Jason Gibbs, Douglas’ spokesperson, assessed the governor’s position, saying, “The governor has heard time and again from a variety of employers of different sizes that the most pressing need is for reform of the state permit process.”
The bill’s chief supporters, among them several business groups, said the measure would significantly improve the process, which they believe is outmoded and hindered by bureaucracy, making it more suitable and coherent.
“This bill will send a message that we want to encourage business growth and development, but not at the expense of the values we all cherish as Vermonters,” said Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Rep. William Johnson (R-Canaan). Chairman of the House General Housing and Military Affairs Committee Rep. Steven Larrabee (R-Danville) agreed, commenting, “I’m doing this because I feel it’s very important to put these bills together, and if I don’t, I’m not sure either bill will pass. We’ve seen the Senate’s reluctance to do anything on [the] Act 250 process.”

Opponents Voice Concerns

Dissenters, however, were very vocal in their opposition, and said that the local permit reform bill did not do what Republicans said it would. Rep. Betty Nuovo (D-Middlebury) explained the changes in an interview with The Middlebury Campus. “Since 1995, what the head of the Environmental Board has done … has been to go through all past decisions. A decision was made on the sewer plant development that did not meet the town plan. So they changed the town plan. That’s precedence. Now, you appeal to Environmental Court instead of the Environmental Board. So now, 30 years of precedent is gone. [Now] they make their own decisions based on their own facts,” she said. Nuovo also noted that this brought on many complications. “You have filing fees, hearings on motions, interrogatories and all that at great expense, and they can never get anything done in three months,” she added.
Rep. George Cross (D-Winooski) agreed, and commented that this bill was essentially meaningless.”The fact of the matter is, there is no reform of the permitting process in this bill. Before this bill there were 35 different permits … and after this bill passes, there will still be 35 different permits,” he said. “Changing the appeal process cannot masquerade as permit reform.”
Furthermore, legislators noted that the way in which the bill was sent over and quickly voted on reflected the nature of Act 250 reform in a very negative light. Nuovo said that when the House received the lengthy bill, she and other Senators were appalled that they could not read and discuss it. “‘We can’t do this, we have to have a chance to read this 100-page document,'” she said during the session.
Rep. John Tracy (D-Burlington) said of the Republican members of the legislature, “They’re just doing this to play politics. This is politics over policy when this was supposed to be what’s good for Vermont.” House Democratic Leader Gaye Symington (D-Jericho) agreed, noting that not a single committee completely took a vote on the measure. “It seems like a pretty irresponsible way to build a bill. I’m really concerned what that says about the committee process and how much we value it,” she commented.
The House’s motion caused a stir in the Senate, moving legislators to voice their concerns with equal ardor. President Pro Tempore of the Senate Peter Welch (D-Windsor) called it “a transparent move [that] just reinforces the inference that we’re now in a political fight as opposed to a substantive debate. If they pass a bill, basically sight unseen, it raises the question of what the intention is. It creates a caricature of what the process should be.”
Claire Ayer (D-Addison), a newcomer to the Statehouse, said in an interview with The Campus, “The really sad thing is that it’s become a matter of politics rather than policy.
She continued, “As a freshman I was really naÔve to think that I could not be involved in things like that, but I’m in the middle of it.”
Changing Act 250 in 2003?

Welch refused to compromise the House bill regarding state regulatory process that will come to the Senate by rushing it through. “The House took two months to do Act 250, and now they want to do it in the Senate in two weeks,” Nuovo said.
Douglas, on the other hand, has publicly criticized the Senate for deliberating, and not attacking the central issue – Act 250 itself.
Douglas said, “I remain concerned that Senate Democrats [are] using some unfounded excuses to defend their inaction,” he said. “The tone of their remarks indicates that they don’t understand the difficult problems our people are facing with the permitting system.” He touched on his commitment to fulfilling campaign promises, continuing, “This is particularly disturbing because most of them promised permit reform during their campaigns.”
Both Ayer and Nuovo agreed that Act 250 has many benefits. “The best thing about Act 250 is that it caused us to think about the ramifications of development in a 360-degree field. We’ve been more judicious in the kinds of development we have in Vermont,” she said.
Ayer did agree with almost all of her fellow legislators in noting that the Act needed improvement. “It needs to be updated,” she said. “We bit off more than we can chew in one year.” Many Democrats agree that Douglas’ ambitious plan regarding Act 250 was too much for the legislature to handle. Welch said, “The big issue is this: does the governor want to have a political fix or a substantive reform on Act 250?
And the question is open.”

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Assessing Priorities Act 250 for Vermont or Local Permit Reform for Middlebury?