Lawmakers eye controversial changes to Act 250 in bid to spur housing development
A Senate committee has advanced a wide-ranging housing bill that sets the stage for yet another debate in Montpelier over the future of the state’s 50-year-old land-use development law: Act 250.
Members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs voted unanimously Wednesday to approve legislation that rolls back Act 250 jurisdiction over potentially large housing developments in downtowns and village centers.
The bill represents the kind of aggressive permit reform that Republican Gov. Phil Scott has been pushing Democratic lawmakers to pass for years. Josh Hanford, who serves as commissioner of housing and community development for the Scott administration, said the proposed changes would do more to advance affordable housing construction than anything the Legislature has undertaken in recent memory.
“We really have a system where one neighbor or a couple people can say, ‘No, I just don’t like that apartment building next to me,’ and stop it," he said. "And we know how much struggle there is right now for folks to find housing… And this goes a long way in that direction. It’s the most progress I’ve seen since I’ve been doing this work for 20 years.”
“We’re concerned about the Act 250 changes because they would allow large-scale commercial and residential development in areas that might not be adequate for them."Brian Shupe, Vermont Natural Resources Council
Changes to Act 250 are far from a done deal, however. Lawmakers and the Scott administration have tried — and failed — for years to substantively alter statewide land-use regulations. Environmental watchdogs such as Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said the Senate legislation, as contemplated now, could erode important protections for the natural resources that Act 250 was created to protect.
“We’re concerned about the Act 250 changes because they would allow large-scale commercial and residential development in areas that might not be adequate for them, and might not have the safeguards in place to address the impacts that Act 250 would address,” Shupe said.
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Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who chairs the committee that drafted the bill, said her committee has only allowed for exemptions from Act 250 in instances where local zoning regulations would achieve the same oversight measures.
Ram Hinsdale said many municipalities have gone through lengthy processes to determine where they want to focus new development. But she said the Act 250 process creates an extra layer of bureaucracy that can undermine those growth plans.
“They go through their own local process for a development or a housing project, and then they have to go through Act 250 again,” Ram Hinsdale said. “It hasn’t created a huge amount of incentive to designate where you want growth and go through both processes.”
Shupe said the VNRC appreciates the severity of the housing crunch in Vermont. And he said the organization supports proposed changes to municipal zoning ordinances that would, for example, compel cities and towns to allow for greater residential density in areas already connected to sewer and water infrastructure.
But he said the processes municipalities undergo to earn special development status — like “growth centers,” for example, or “neighborhood development areas,” — aren’t a suitable tradeoff for Act 250.
The Senate legislation also contains proposed changes to municipal zoning regulations that some housing developers say are as important as the Act 250 overhauls.
Most town and city in Vermont have their own set of unique local housing regulations, and the bill would usurp local control over certain zoning requirements in significant ways.
Maura Collins, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, pointed to a provision in the bill that would prohibit municipalities from requiring more than one parking space per housing unit. She said VHFA cut the ribbon on a new affordable housing complex in Stowe last year that, but for parking requirements, would have been able to accommodate more families.
“And because there was a requirement for two parking spots per unit, there was an entire apartment that we couldn’t build and house Vermonters for decades into the future because we needed to have those parking spots available,” Collins said.
The bill would also require towns and cities to allow for the construction of at least four units per acre in areas already served by municipal sewer and water.
The bill isn’t limited to permit reform; it also contains about $90 million in new funding for a range of housing projects.
Proposed appropriations include $25 million for the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board; $20 million for housing for middle-income residents; $20 million to renovate old or blighted apartment units; $1 million to subsidize property acquisition for first-generation homebuyers; and $500,000 in new base funding annually for mobile home parks.
The bill also includes $20 million for a new revolving loan fund that would allow VHFA to partner with employers and developers to construct workforce housing.
The bill now heads to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, which will more closely examine the impact of proposed changes to land-use regulations.
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