On March 4, 2020

House passes Act 250 modernization

Bill strengthens environmental protections, sustainable trail development, growth in downtown

Staff report

The Vermont House of Representatives passed H.926, an Act 250 modernization bill, 88 to 52 with tripartisan support on Friday, Feb. 28. The bill passed almost three years after lawmakers formally began a review of how to “modernize” Act 250 in advance of its 50th anniversary this year.

As passed, H.926 adds criteria to Act 250 to better protect forest blocks, wildlife habitat, and river corridors. It promotes efforts to foster sustainable trail development. It supports smart growth by reducing sprawling development while facilitating development in compact downtowns, villages, and neighborhoods.

Two of the more controversial provisions of the bill — creating a statewide project review board and lowering the elevation trigger for Act 250 review from 2,500 to 2,000 feet — were eliminated before the final House floor vote.

Gov. Phil Scott said he’s concerned about the expansion of Act 250 review to land above 2,000 feet, which would encompass about 500,000 more acres in Vermont, he said.

“So think about this: You have a camp or a home that you’ve had for decades, and all of a sudden this provision comes into place, and if you want to re-do your driveway, you want to re-do your home, you want to do whatever, you’re going to have to get an Act 250 permit to do it,” Scott said.

If passed, the provision would have required residents and business above 2,000 feet (including much of the town of Killington) to get an Act 250 permit for any construction project.

Much of the focus of the bill was to ease housing development in town centers.

The legislation exempts state-designated downtowns and neighborhood development areas from Act 250 review, with the aim of promoting compact development. Village centers also have a “path forward” for exemption, provided they have local zoning regulations and other requirements in place, said Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield.

“Our state, and the challenges we face, have evolved in the 50 years since Act 250 was enacted,” said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). “It’s time to modernize this landmark law to reflect today’s needs. This bill eases Act 250 regulations for downtowns and village centers where development is strategic and sustainable. It also works to strengthen natural resource protection by promoting sustainable trail development, protecting forest blocks and supporting working forests. This bill also supports working agricultural lands and strengthens our state’s environmental protections. H.926 is a significant part of our climate change agenda and also promotes our shared goal of protecting our natural resources.”

One of the least controversial amendments was a proposal to clarify that trails on private land are not under Act 250 jurisdiction while the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation moves ahead over the next couple of years with a new trail management program.

Rep. Paul Lefebvre, R-Newark, vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, had voted against the bill when it left his committee. But he said on Friday that the trails provision and lack of changes to the district commissions convinced him to vote for the bill on the House floor.

“I find a much stronger bill today, one I can easily support,” he said.

The bill also better addresses climate change — an issue that was not in the public consciousness when Act 250 was enacted in 1970 — through consideration of transportation and energy impacts of development.

Several of Vermont’s foremost environmental groups sent a letter of support for H.926 to state Representatives this week, including VNRC, The Nature Conservancy in Vermont, Audubon Vermont, Vermont Conservation Voters, and Conservation Law Foundation.

“As leading environmental and conservation organizations in Vermont, it is our long-time goal to ensure that Vermont’s natural resources, wild places, and working lands are preserved for the ecological, cultural, and economic value they provide, and for the health of the state and Vermonters overall,” the letter stated.

Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, commended committee members for adding “environmental justice” to the project criteria and for requiring a review of Act 250’s impact on racial equity and diversity.

The bill now makes its way back to the Senate. It will need reconciliation with earlier Senate changes before ultimately reaching the governor.

Elizabeth Gribkoff, from VTDigger, contributed to this report.

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