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Phil Scott vetoes bill that would make sweeping changes to Act 250

Gov. Phil Scott speaks during his weekly press conference on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
Glenn Russell
/
VTDigger
Gov. Phil Scott speaks during his weekly press conference on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

Gov. Phil Scott has vetoed a major housing and land-use bill that would make sweeping reforms to Act 250, a law that has governed and guided development in Vermont for over half a century.

One of lawmakers’ landmark pieces of legislation this year, and a subject of lengthy debate over balancing housing growth and environmental conservation, H.687 cleared its last hurdle in the final hours of the 2024 legislative session last month.

But Scott signaled on Thursday that, from his perspective, lawmakers’ Act 250 compromise focuses too much on conservation efforts and not enough on encouraging housing development.

“Despite almost universal consensus, I don’t believe we’ve done nearly enough to address Vermont’s housing affordability crisis,” the Republican governor wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

For years, state leaders have attempted — and failed — to find compromise on Act 250’s future. Housing proponents have long argued the land use review law adds cost, time and risk to the development process, stifling housing growth. Environmentalists, meanwhile, have contended that climate change and habitat loss caused by development should require builders to think even more carefully about their projects.

H.687 represents something of a grand bargain between those interests. It would relax Act 250’s reach in existing development centers, a move proponents hope will clear red tape and encourage compact housing development amid an acute housing shortage. It also lays the groundwork for extending Act 250’s protections over to-be-determined ecologically sensitive areas.

But throughout the 2024 legislative session, the Republican governor repeatedly voiced criticismof the bill as it wound its way through the Statehouse, at times calling it a “conservation bill” and arguing that it does not go far enough to promote housing development, particularly in rural areas.

In his veto letter, Scott claims that H.687 would in fact expand Act 250 regulation “at a pace that will slow down current housing efforts.”

The governor pointed to a new “road rule” as one “significant expansion of Act 250 that will make it harder to build.” The rule would trigger Act 250 review for larger-scale private road construction, a measure meant to deter forest fragmentation.

Stating that he was “committed to a responsible compromise,” Scott asked lawmakers to work with him to pass “a replacement bill.”

Among his requested changes are an extension and an expansion of interim exemptions to Act 250 that would remain in effect during a years-long mapping and rulemaking process.

Scott also asked lawmakers to revive a measure to limit appeals of housing projects in areas designated for growth, a policy left on the cutting room floor during the session.

Lawmakers plan to reconvene for a veto session on Monday. Final versions of H.687 passed largely along party lines in both the House and Senate, with Democrats generally voting in favor and Republicans against. At the end of the regular session, it was unclear whether both chambers would be able to muster the two-thirds majority required to override a veto.

In a statement Thursday House Speaker Jill Krowinski confirmed the House will hold an override vote. “The Governor has stated that the bill focuses too much on conservation, but let me be absolutely clear – this bill is a balanced approach to be pro-environment and pro-development,” Krowinski said. “I’m disappointed that the Governor has chosen to stop showing up at the table and is instead choosing to lead via veto,” she added.

The sprawling bill carries far more than just Act 250 changes. It also includes broad reforms to the state’s designation incentives program, a new tax on second-home buyers, funding for eviction prevention programs, flood disclosure requirements for home sellers and landlords, and more.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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