On May 10, 2023

Hopes for Act 250 reform wane

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

The session’s omnibus housing bill advanced again on Thursday, April 13, with Act 250 provisions untouched, and those beating the drum of state-level deregulation are beginning to lose hope that they will win any concessions this year.

On an 8-4 vote, the House Committee on General and Housing advanced S.100 with few changes, save for restoring funding for programs that were removed from the bill when it passed out of the Senate, and adding some additional money.

The split vote — and the tense and at times emotional debate that preceded it — did not concern what the legislation includes, but rather what it does not. Panel members generally expressed widespread consensus about the bill, which would require municipalities to allow moderately denser development, particularly in areas with water and sewer infrastructure, and spend roughly $114 million on a variety of housing programs.

But, as they have all session, lawmakers bitterly disagreed about Act 250, the state’s more than 50-year-old land-use law. And this time, they even disagreed about whether or not to discuss the matter at all.

The day before Thursday’s vote, Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, had offered the committee an amendment to introduce three new Act 250 exemptions — one which he said had the votes to pass. But after an hour-long discussion, committee members went into a recess. And when they returned, the chair, Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, made clear that Elder’s amendment would not be voted upon.

“The portfolio of our committee, at this point in time, does not include Act 250,” Stevens said, adding that the panel had not taken the testimony it needed to responsibly weigh in.

“Regardless of what you may think of it, [Act 250] is the most important environmental law that we have on our books,” he said. “And I’m not comfortable with inserting language that I feel — that I feel — uninformed on.”

Those lobbying for additional Act 250 reforms say they’ll keep doing so. But the House General and Housing Committee was believed to be the last major opportunity for introducing such measures in a receptive venue.

The housing bill is expected to go through three other committees before it hits the House floor. But its next destination, the Energy and Environment Committee, is widely viewed as highly protective of Vermont’s landmark environmental and land-use law, and the other two panels are budget- and tax-writing committees that are only supposed to deal with the legislation’s financial implications.

Stevens and others made clear in their comments that his directive to steer clear of Act 250 came from House leadership. In an interview Thursday, Conor Kennedy, chief of staff to House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, pointed to the House’s rules, which state that the Environment and Energy Committee is charged with “conservation and development,” while the Housing Committee is tasked with issues related to “housing.”

But critics have suggested that leadership’s interpretation of the panel’s jurisdiction — and the single week they were given to work on the bill — rendered the committee little more than a rubber stamp.

“How much work have we really done with this? This morning was our first committee discussion on this bill that wasn’t a walkthrough. Today. And we’re being told we have to move it tomorrow. And we’re the housing committee,” Elder said to his fellow committee members.

Rep. Ashley Bartley, R-Fairfax, told her colleagues Thursday evening that she was proud of the housing programs their version of the bill, if passed, would fund. But she expressed frustration with the notion that the chamber’s housing committee could not discuss regulations that dictate where and how housing is built.

“It’s something that’s absolutely in our jurisdiction, whether it’s written anywhere or not that we can or cannot talk about it,” she said. “As (Vermont Housing) Commissioner (Josh) Hanford said: You cannot build housing in the clouds.”

Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, replied to Bartley, who is in her first term, that perhaps James was “more accustomed, I guess, to the concept of committee jurisdiction, just because I’ve been around a little bit longer.” (James was first elected in 2018.)

“It happens that way every day around here. And it’s not nefarious, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong — it means that a bill’s moving committees. I guess I’m sorry that that part of the conversation has become such a big part of our conversation here because I feel like we’ve got a great bill,” James said.

Rep. Saudia LaMont, D-Morristown told her colleagues that she felt the process before her made no sense and was deeply upsetting. “As a person who’s experienced homelessness — chronic homelessness — as a renter and a person who serves in the community, the people who we’re trying to help here, to falsely vote on something and not know where it’s gonna go in the other half puts me in a really gross position,” she said.

“I thought as an elected official that I was here to serve people in a way that was going to do things, and I didn’t realize how splintered it was. So I guess this is the job, is what I’m being told,” she continued. “This is what it is. And this is how it’s been done. And that was unbeknownst to me. It makes sense now that our country and our nation and our state and our systems are the way they are and that so many people are underserved.”

Stevens said at the conclusion of the committee’s discussion Thursday evening that he was “sorry if elements of this process” had “felt harmful or hurtful.”

“I don’t have more to say in terms of what the process is,” he said. “I’ve been very clear since the beginning how this bill was going to be worked on and how it was going to be split, and I don’t necessarily agree with it either.”

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