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Vermont Senate sends Flood Safety Act to the House with bipartisan support

A photo from above of brown water leaching into dark blue water around land forms.
Vermont Online Library
Floodwaters flow into Lake Champlain in Milton on July 11, 2023.

The Vermont Senate voted Thursday to send what environmental advocates and many lawmakers say is one of the biggest climate bills of the session to the House.

The Flood Safety Act is the biggest policy on the table this session aimed at boosting Vermont’s resilience to climate change. The bill focuses on three major aspects of the state’s natural landscape: river corridors and floodplains, wetlands and dams.

The policy proposes a statewide program to regulate new development in river corridors — places where a river tends to move during major flood events.

Experts at the Agency of Natural Resources and Vermont Emergency Management say this is where the most dangerous flooding in Vermont occurs, where water tends to move quickly and can sweep away buildings and infrastructure.

Environmental advocates and many lawmakers say it’s time to stop building new structures there.

Right now, towns have the option of adopting regulations that prevent this and enforcing them themselves, but few in the state have done so because of limited staffing capacity.

This leaves many, many miles of river corridor open to new development that could require buy-outs or rebuilding in the future.

The bill also proposes stricter standards for new buildings in places like floodplains, that see slower inundation flooding.

Additionally, the policy requires Vermont to manage for a net gain of wetlands and strengthens regulations on private dams.

The bill moved ahead with bipartisan support in the Senate. In an initial roll call vote on Wednesday, the vote was 24-4-2, followed by final approval Thursday.

Environmental advocates with The Nature Conservancy, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Conservation Voters and Conservation Law Foundation applauded the Senate for advancing the bill.

“These policies will improve public safety, reduce damages and the mountain costs associated with flood recovery, better support our municipalities and our residents, improve water quality, support biodiversity and protect recreational opportunities,” the organizations said in a joint statement.

Karina Dailey, a restoration ecologist for VNRC, also lauded the bill’s progress. “Clearly preventing flooding is better than responding to the disastrous consequences in the aftermath,” Dailey said.

The bill's sponsors say this work is critical to make Vermonters safer from future floods, which are expected to get worse because of climate change.

Where to build?

During floor debate Wednesday, some Republican and Democratic senators also urged their colleagues to roll back regulations on development outside flood plains.

Sen. Richard Westman is a Republican from Lamoille County who supported the bill.

Cambridge and Johnson – two towns that were hit hard during the historic floods Vermont saw in July – are both in his district. He says lawmakers need to help communities rebuild faster than current regulations allow.

"There's 25 households that have been displaced,” he said. “We have no projects going on within our communities, of development. So we have no place for those people to go within our communities."

Westman said he’d like to see the process of applying for a wetland permit in the state sped up, especially for projects that replace housing lost to flooding.

Chittenden County Democrats Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Thomas Chittenden joined Westman in urging their colleagues on the Natural Resources Committee to support housing exemptions from Act 250 and other regulatory reform, referring specifically to S.311, or the BE Home bill, which is in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Ram Hinsdale said housing is a critical need in the state, and called flood safety and housing “two sides of the same coin.”

Sen. Chittenden also urged his colleagues to support parallel investments in housing. He said he was torn about whether to support the policy, but ultimately landed on a yes vote.

“This bill, especially with the wetlands section, is going to create more regulatory hurdles, uncertainty and expense, which drives up the cost of both housing and living in Vermont and risks thwarting and stifling needed investment in our communities,” Chittenden said.

“I hope at the end of the session, this is balanced by making it easier and a clearer path to build where we know we want to build in this state, by reducing some of the regulatory obstacles in our way before us today.”

Some Republicans balked at the $5 million appropriation the Flood Safety Act initially carried – for new staff positions at the Agency of Natural Resources to implement the River Corridor Bylaws and funding for loans to dam owners for repairs, among other things.

The Senate Appropriations Committee removed the funds from the bill, and testified on the floor that they wanted to let their colleagues in the House weigh in on what funds are available to support the policy as lawmakers continue to hash out the budget.

Governor’s support uncertain

Minority Leader Randy Brock, a Republican from Franklin County, expressed concern about new regulations.

“I intend to vote no on this bill, but make no mistake: it is not because I’m opposed in any way to doing something about the problems that we face, or recognizing the difficulty that so many Vermonters are experiencing as a result of these floods,” Brock said.

Gov. Phil Scott echoed Brock’s concerns, but said he hasn’t decided yet whether he’d sign it if it made it to his desk.

And while Republicans raised concerns about cost, Democrats pushed back.

Sen. Ram Hinsdale and others say the cost of action pales in comparison to what Vermont has already incurred by way of damage from flooding in areas the bill endeavors to better protect.

And while other policies this session endeavor to provide financial support to impacted communities, Democrats point out that this bill is the primary tool lawmakers have put forward to prepare the state for the next flood.

“There is significant cost to inaction on this front, just as there is a significant cost to inaction in terms of developing safe new housing,” Ram Hinsdale said. “Five million dollars is quite insignificant when you compare it not just to the $1 billion price tag that we’ve now put on the July flooding, but as we look at December flooding, January windstorms, continued damage and continued costs, not only in the monetary sense but also in terms of the significant trauma and emotional pain and loss and suffering of so many Vermonters.”

The bill goes next to the House.

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Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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