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Vermont is changing. Should Act 250 change with it?

Act 250 is Vermont's signature land-use law. It sets standards that developers need to clear to break ground on projects, and it was passed more than half a century ago, during a time of rapid development in Vermont.
Sophie Stephens
Photos courtesy of Vermont Public
Act 250 is Vermont's signature land-use law. It sets standards that developers need to clear to break ground on projects, and it was passed more than half a century ago, during a time of rapid development in Vermont.

Vermont’s small town charm didn’t just happen out of thin air. It’s been legislated, especially via one really important Vermont law — Act 250. But as Vermont changes, there’s a push for Act 250 to change, too.

Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Danielle Laberge of Wells:

“What's the deal with Act 250, Vermont's signature land-use law? Why is it important and what's changing?”

Reporter Sabine Poux digs into the story of Act 250, from its origins in the 1960s to a present-day battle over how it should be implemented. This isn’t just a story about a law. It’s a story about our shared values, and how we want our state to change — or not — over the next 50 years and beyond.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers, and they may contain errors.


‘Vermontiness’, codified

Sabine Poux: There is an ineffable quality that makes some things just feel stereotypically Vermont. Things like flannel, craft beer, maple syrup, wool socks, small towns, covered bridges — and, of course, farming.

Matt Lombard: We’re finishing harvesting Brussels sprouts. We’re cleaning out animals. We’re going to get the chickens moved onto the compost pad, where they'll stay for the winter.

Sabine Poux: This is Matt Lombard, the farmer at Peace Field Farm in Woodstock. Peace Field has chickens, cows, pigs and two big, red barns. The view from the property looks like it was ripped right from a Vermont postcard. So much so that sometimes it even surprises Matt, and the farm’s owner, John Holland.

Matt Lombard: Remember in the spring, John, when this was like bright green?

John Holland: It nearly looked unnatural. It was so green.

Matt Lombard is the farmer at Peace Field Farm. Peace
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Matt Lombard is the farmer at Peace Field Farm. Peace Field is stuck in a years-long Act 250 permitting process.

Sabine Poux: But Vermontiness — the quality of Vermont as a feeling or an aesthetic, as much as a place — that isn’t just something that happened out of thin air. It’s been legislated. And adjudicated. And it’s especially baked into one really important Vermont law — Act 250.

You’ve probably heard of Act 250 before. It’s Vermont’s signature land-use law, which means it’s the way the state decides whether and how construction projects proceed.

The law has been credited with “keeping Vermont looking like Vermont,” preserving the state’s historic small town charm, preventing a proliferation of chain stores and strip malls, and protecting Vermont’s wetlands and forests.

But there’s another way of looking at this effort to preserve “Vermontiness.” Critics accuse Act 250 of contributing to Vermont's housing crisis and overwhelming whiteness.

That’s why the story of Act 250 is more than a story of one law and its legacy. It’s also a story about what makes Vermont the way it is. About how we’ve built our state’s identity — carefully, over many years. And how — or even whether — to continue protecting that identity as Vermont itself changes.

That’s a tension playing out at Peace Field in Woodstock. The farm is stuck in a years-long regulatory battle over whether they need an Act 250 permit to run a restaurant on the farm.

Matt Lombard: Which to me just seems very … It’s just backwards because the intention of Act 250 was initially to make a clear path for farm farm operators to operate while preserving the landscape. And it's, it's done the opposite here.

Sabine Poux: That’s the first of many contradictions you’ll hear in this story. Here’s another:

Danielle Laberge: It feels like it's something that's, like, very integral to Vermont's character that, like, other places do not have this. And, like, everyone loves to complain about it, but they also love how aesthetic Vermont is. 

Sabine Poux: This is Danielle Laberge, our winning question-asker. She lives in the town of Wells, in Rutland County.

Danielle Laberge: I was born and raised in Vermont. And everyone has an Act 250 story.

Sabine Poux: Danielle works for her family business, selling solar panels. Through her job, she meets a lot of residents and small business owners with their own Act 250 stories.

A smiling woman stands outside. She's wearing a hat and a blue jacket.
Danielle Laberge
Danielle Laberge of Wells asked the question that sparked this story: "What's the deal with Act 250, Vermont's signature land-use law?"

Danielle Laberge: And for those folks, like, an Act 250 permit can be, like, make or break. I met with someone yesterday and they they had to pay $30,000 in legal fees to get two pieces of paper that said it was OK for them to have their building in the same spot where it had been before it burned down. And then the structure was rebuilt on that same spot.

Sabine Poux: She’s heard lots of stories just like that one: red tape, high permit fees, unclear standards, piles and piles and piles of documents.

Danielle Laberge: It's the thing that everybody loves to complain about. But at the same time, like, I know that it is like the signature land-use law, that, like, is why Vermont is still so beautiful, and that it’s a tourist destination. And like it's had such a hand in shaping like development in the state. 

Sabine Poux: Danielle’s curiosity has led her to the Brave Little State submission form a few times. Once, she lost in a voting round to a question about another very Vermont-y topic — the band, Phish.

Danielle Laberge: And actually I wasn't even mad about it because I learned so much from that episode. 

Sabine Poux: But this time, her question won out. It’s actually three questions. And they go like this:

Danielle Laberge: What's the deal with Act 250, Vermont's signature land-use law? Why is it important and what's changing?


Ski towns and second homes: The origins of Act 250

Sabine Poux: Act 250 is pretty well known around Vermont. It comes up more in casual conversation than you might think. It even made it onto a list Brave Little State put together earlier this year featuring Vermont cultural phenomena.

But there was a time before Act 250 — or many land-use controls of any kind in Vermont. And in the 1960s, that caught one Vermont governor’s attention.

Mary Kasamatsu: I’m with Gov. Deane Davis at his home in Montpelier.

Sabine Poux: This is an interview with former Vermont Governor Deane Davis. It was recorded for the Vermont Historical Society years after Davis left office.

Mary Kasamatsu: One of the program that we’re specifically doing is Act 250. And I know what was one of the — well, is it fair to say a priority of your administration?

Gov. Davis: It became a priority, yes. And indeed it’s the thing that is, I guess, as time has gone on, I have decided that was the best thing that was done during my administration. Although I did not have any such thing in my mind when I ran for governor.

A campaign ad shows a man on the phone with the words, "Deane Davis for Governor."
Vermont Historical Society
A campaign ad for Vermont Gov. Deane Davis, who held office from 1969 to 1973. Davis ran on a platform of "responsible progress" in Vermont.

Sabine Poux: Deane Davis grew up in Barre. But some of his formative experiences came from time he spent on his grandpa’s farm in Corinth.

Gov. Davis: So in order to save some pressure on my mother, they farmed me out over with my grandfather when I was five years old. And some of my clearest memories begin right then.

Sabine Poux: Those memories were part of a deep and abiding appreciation Davis had for Vermont’s landscape and its agricultural industry. They stuck with him through his many years as a practicing attorney and eventually through his successful bid for governor in 1968.

Davis was a Republican. Which might come as a surprise to those who associate environmentalism with the politics of the left.

But Act 250 was about more than preserving the natural environment alone. For Davis and his allies, it was also about preserving the character of the state in the face of rapid development.

At the time, Interstate 91 was creeping northward, connecting New Englanders looking to build second homes and ski resorts to Vermont. The state’s corporate footprint was growing, with companies like IBM expanding their presence here. Davis talked about selective planning being a way to, quote, “bring in the desirable and screen out the undesirable,” according to a campaign speech he made in 1968.

A newspaper article titled, "Vermont Name Magic to Developers"
Bruce Post
A 1969 story in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus paints a picture of development in southern Vermont in the years preceding Act 250's passage.
A diagram cartoon shows a man dressed in a suit.
Bruce Post
A 1960s-era cartoon from Jane Clark Brown parodies the developers that were coming to Vermont in the mid-20th century.

All of this came to a head during Davis’s first year in office — thanks in large part to a man named Bill Schmidt.

Bill Schmidt: OK. Let me tell you how, and when, Act 250 was conceived.

Sabine Poux: Bill is 88 years old now, and lives in Dummerston, in Windham County.

Bill Schmidt: You know, I think we struck the match and it went from there.

Sabine Poux: Back in 1969, when Gov. Davis was entering office, Bill was leading the Windham Regional Commission — a new group designed to coordinate development in southeastern Vermont. The group invited Gov. Davis to Brattleboro to talk about what was happening in their region — the development of second homes, for example, a lot of which Bill says were built poorly or haphazardly.

Bill Schmidt: Our aim first was to bring all of this to his attention … We felt like there needed to be some control of what was happening.

Sabine Poux: Gov. Davis agreed to come chat. And Bill says the conversation really opened his eyes.

Bill Schmidt: He got so interested in what was being said. What he was hearing. He was not aware of this at all. It was a new subject for him. You could just see him emotionally liven up to the conversation, for what he was hearing.

Sabine Poux: Bill highlighted one subdivision on a hillside in Wilmington, where he says the road was so steep that school buses couldn’t get up. And without good infrastructure, there was sewage running down the hill too.

A later visit to that subdivision to see the sewage and shoddy construction with his own eyes sealed the deal for Gov. Davis. He later credited that tour, and Bill Schmidt, for alerting him to the dangers of unplanned development — which he saw as a threat to Vermont’s unique quality of life.

A man points to a cartoon in a living room.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Environmental historian Bruce Post with a 1996 cartoon from the Burlington Free Press, commenting on development in the ski town of Stowe.

Gov. Davis: And all of this began to coalesce, you know, until it became clear to me that unless we did something about this early, that the Vermont was going to be a sorry-looking place after, say, 20 years or 25 years or whatever. 

Sabine Poux: A year after Deane Davis’s tour of Wilmington, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 250. Like Gov. Davis, Bill Schmidt says getting Act 250 passed was one of the highlights of his career.

Bill Schmidt: And when we’re talking about land, I mean, that’s very basic to our lives. And what goes on in our lives is, you know, very land-oriented.

Sabine Poux: In some ways, Act 250 is very land-oriented, and provides a lot of environmental checks and balances. It protects stream buffers and wildlife habitats. It addresses water pollution and has safeguards for agricultural soil.

But back in the 60s and 70s, it also represented a really fundamental shift in how Vermonters related to the land — and, in particular, the rights people had as owners.

Gov. Davis: There were a lot of people that looked at it, I think, from a political philosophy point of view…

Sabine Poux: Here’s Gov. Davis, again.

Gov. Davis: …which were the people who felt strongest about and had inherited the old Vermont idea, you know, that land is sacred to the owner, that the owner can do whatever he wants to. And that’s one of the main things about Act 250, is that it clearly brought into the picture the idea that the state itself, the people in the state, have an interest that has to be protected in the use of land.

Sabine Poux: Landowners in the Northeast Kingdom quickly took issue with the law. They didn’t like that the state was making development harder right as the new interstate was reaching them, according to the New Yorker. To the south, builders and contractors worried that Act 250 was taking away jobs.

Some of those criticisms have changed over time, but one that has remained consistent? Just how confusing it is to understand.


How Act 250 works

The law itself is really long. But the gist is this: Act 250 sets standards that developers need to clear to break ground on a project.

But it’s not that simple. Because first, you have to figure out whether you even need an Act 250 permit in the first place. Vermont’s Natural Resources Board, or “NRB,” is the entity that oversees Act 250 — and it has a flow chart on its website so you can figure out this very question. Broadly, the law applies to large commercial developments and high density housing projects, though the list doesn’t end there.

Also, farming is exempt from Act 250. Remember: Gov. Deane Davis saw farming as part of what made Vermont, Vermont.

If a project does need a permit, there’s another set of criteria to figure out whether it will be approved or whether it needs to be tweaked first. Some of the ten permitting criteria are pretty clear cut. Like Criteria 3, for example: impact on water supply.

But others leave more room for interpretation. Criteria 9 asks applicants to outline the impact their project will have on growth in the community. And Criteria 10 asks whether a project is in conformance with local and regional plans.

The law breaks Vermont into nine local districts, each with a three-person commission to review applications.

And on the whole, very few Act 250 permits are flat out denied. Most are considered minor and are approved without a hearing. According to data from the NRB, no applications were denied in all of 2022.

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Cost can be a big deterrent and could keep some people from even applying for permits in the first place.

But putting aside cost for a minute — people also criticize the Act 250 criteria, the stuff permits are based on. Like how the law isn’t fit to address threats to the environment that we didn’t fully understand when the law was passed, like our changing climate.

Another big concern is that Act 250 has contributed to racial inequity in Vermont. And there’s some indication that racist fears shaped the law from the very beginning. In the same speech when Gov. Davis talked about “desirable” and “undesirable” development, he also warned about letting outsiders, quote, “buy up our property” and “line our highways with fried-chicken shacks”

Later, in an interview the year before he died, Gov. Davis described the 60s as a time when the nature of Vermont’s population was changing.

Gov. Davis: We were getting a rapid immigration into the state of people from high-density areas, and many of them with backgrounds that were quite dissimilar to what we would call the ordinary Vermonter in those days.

Sabine Poux: A few years ago, lawmakers took another look at Act 250 around its 50th anniversary. In testimony, one advocate asked for a review of how Act 250 has impacted racial equity and diversity in Vermont. To this day, no such study has been done — though, the NRB is now legally required to consider, quote, “environmental justice” in its work.

Since I started reporting this story, I’ve looked at a lot of examples of Act 250 at work. And what I see time and time again is that the process leaves a lot up for interpretation. Bill Schmidt, the guy who originally showed Gov. Davis that housing development with sewage running down the hill — he says Act 250 felt a lot more straightforward at the time it was passed.

Bill Schmidt: Much more so then. What was available in the way of environmental control was much less so than now. Developments are much more complex now.

Sabine Poux: Complex, in part, because our world looks different now. And Vermont looks different now.

Matt Lombard: I moved to Vermont when I was 13. 

Sabine Poux: Matt Lombard, the farmer we met at the top of the episode from Peace Field Farm.

Matt Lombard: My first job was was off a dairy farm in South Woodstock. I fell in love with it immediately and gained an immense amount of respect for the lifestyle and for the culture.

Sabine Poux: Matt has lived in Vermont for 25 years. In that time, what it means to be a farmer here has changed a lot. Vermont has lost more than 100,000 acres of farmland since then.

Matt Lombard: And I think it’s really sad, what’s happened. But that's what, that’s how I fell in love with farming, was the Vermont dairy industry, and the resilience.

Sabine Poux: The farms that have stuck around are turning to new business models to survive.

A man stands with his back to the camera. A big red barn is behind him.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Matt Lombard and John Holland want to turn the big red barn on their property into a farm-to-table restaurant.

That’s what Matt has been trying to do at Peace Field. The farm already supplies food for Santé and Mangalitsa, his two restaurants in town. But Matt is also trying to put that meat and produce right on people’s plates at the farm itself, in the red barn that’s the sort-of centerpiece of the Woodstock property.

Matt Lombard: So what that allows us to do is to, you know, pay living wages to the people working on the farm, pay the farm expenses, provide an experience that is congruent with Vermont's efforts to preserve ag and draw people in based on an ag experience. 

But, it hasn’t happened yet. That’s because Peace Field has been stuck in a long battle over the Act 250 permitting for the business.

The Peace Field Farm saga

Sabine Poux: At Peace Field Farm in Woodstock, Matt Lombard handles the day-to-day work on the farm. The owner is John Holland, a developer from Boston who also has a second home on the property. He bought Peace Field more than a decade ago.

John Holland: It didn't 100% begin as, “Let's start a farm.” It sort of evolved into that.

Sabine Poux: John tore down the property’s historic barn and built a new one. A few years ago, he started planning for a farm-to-table restaurant, to diversify the farm’s income.

An early version of that plan came in 2018. John asked the state Natural Resources Board if he needed an Act 250 permit for that project and the board said yes.

But instead of applying for a permit, John abandoned the plan. And in 2020, he started working on a new version, with Matt, the Peace Field farmer.

The big change was sourcing more than half the restaurant’s food right from the farm — a threshold that typically keeps farm businesses under the banner of “agriculture,” and makes them exempt from the Act 250 process. Remember — preserving an agricultural way of life has always been a big priority of the law.

So, John and Matt didn’t reach back out to the NRB. Instead, they applied for a local permit from the town of Woodstock.

John Holland: They thoughtfully went through that process, they asked us millions of questions about how many animals were on the farm, how much we're growing. I mean, they really did a lot, a lot of work.

John Holland and Matt Lombard at Peace Field Farm.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
John Holland and Matt Lombard at Peace Field Farm.

Sabine Poux: But then things got complicated.

John Holland: Then, just one afternoon, I got a notice of violation from the Natural Resources Board. And that sort of stopped the town site plan process.

Sabine Poux: The NRB said John and Matt still needed an Act 250 permit for their restaurant because they’d already been ordered to get one years before. It didn’t matter how much they had changed their plan in the intervening years. The original decision still held.

So, they applied for an Act 250 permit after all. And in the summer of 2021, the NRB held hearings.

John Holland: But the thing is, like, tomorrow, if Matt has—

Tim Taylor (interrupting): In 2018, you got—

NRB Commissioner (interrupting): You triggered Act 250.

Tim Taylor: You triggered Act 250.

NRB Commissioner: It wasn’t appealed.

Sabine Poux: You’re hearing an exchange between John and the NRB commissioners in his district. Here’s then-commission chair Tim Taylor — himself a farmer.

Blue prints on a table.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Blueprints sit on a table at Peace Field Farm.

Tim Taylor: Whether you mean to or not, there's kind of an undertone of arrogance to this, that is, in my 10 years of doing these, is just nothing I've ever seen before. You're just marching along out there as if somehow you're going to open up next week. And that just can't happen — I mean, make a mockery of this whole process. This has been around for 50 years.

Sabine Poux: And then, at the same hearing, some of John’s neighbors weighed in.

Al Alessi: The sound is probably the biggest concern I have. … And I'm saying there would be a consistent pattern of the sound in what is a very quiet little valley in which others have mentioned.

Sabine Poux: A few of the neighbors hired lawyers, and John did, too.

And then, a few months later, the commission handed down the decision on Peace Field’s application. It was denied.

The commission said the restaurant didn’t fit with Woodstock’s town plan. They still saw it as a commercial business in a residential neighborhood.

And then, less than a month later, the town of Woodstock issued its own decision. Woodstock said — actually — the restaurant did fit with their town plan. And they granted Peace Field a local permit. The town saw the restaurant as an “accessory” to the farm itself, rather than a separate business.

In other words: The town contradicted the state.

I wanted to make sense of that contradiction. I called up Tim Taylor, the former commissioner who called John “arrogant” at the hearing. Tim no longer works for the NRB.

He still stands by the rationale of his decision to deny Peace Field’s Act 250 permit.

But he effectively agrees with John on this point: that once the town approved the project, the state’s decision no longer made sense.

Tim Taylor: At that point, I think our argument, and the decision based on Criteria 10, was in effect mooted. 

Sabine Poux: He says if John had come back to the NRB with Woodstock’s approval in hand, instead of appealing the denial in court, there may have been a different outcome.

Tim Taylor: I believe we would have gone ahead in a reconsideration and issued a permit. 

Sabine Poux: Instead, John is still fighting for his restaurant.

John Holland: We're going on two years later, and they have not corrected that wrong to this day.

‘It comes down to standards’

Sabine Poux: The Peace Field example is one very rare instance of flat-out permit denial. It was the only project denied by the NRB in 2021.

But it illustrates some of the core tensions of Act 250.

There’s the overlapping state and local regulations. Also, the issue of public input. Act 250’s designed to bring neighbors into the fold, giving them a voice in decisions about local development. But it also creates an environment for “NIMBYism” — or, “Not In My Backyard-ism”. That’s an accusation that comes up in emails from John Holland to his neighbors, according to documents in Peace Field’s Act 250 file.

And then there’s the subjectivity of the review process. John says the standards aren’t enforced the same across businesses. He points to other farm-to-table restaurants around the state that didn’t need Act 250 permits, like Cloudland Farm and Philo Ridge.

John Holland: I think it comes down to standards. What are the standards? I mean, I'm certainly not an enemy of standards. I just want to know what they are.

Sabina Haskell: This comment comes up all the time, that “Applicant A” didn't need a permit, but “Applicant B” did. 

This is Sabina Haskell. She’s chair of the Natural Resources Board, which oversees Act 250.

Sabina Haskell: That comment, that criticism about Act 250, is not limited to agriculture. When we look at proposed development, we're also looking at it specific to that piece of land. So, sometimes, there are constraints on a property that are here, but not there. And so they need to be, they need to be evaluated differently.

A smiling woman sits in a recording studio. A pad of notes is on the table.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Sabina Haskell is chair of the Natural Resources Board, which oversees Act 250. Sabina was appointed to the position by Gov. Phil Scott in 2021.

Sabine Poux: Sabina says she can’t comment on Peace Field’s case, specifically.

So I ask Sabina more broadly — when it comes to something like an on-farm restaurant, does that fall under the umbrella of an agricultural exemption?

Sabina Haskell: The simple answer is: It's complicated.

Sabine Poux: It’s complicated, in part, because it’s not always so straightforward, what qualifies as a farm in 2023.

Bill Schmidt: When I say issues became, have become more complex over time, this is a good example.

Sabine Poux: Bill Schmidt again, who helped inspire the creation of Act 250 in the late ‘60s.

Bill Schmidt: Even a farm having a farmstand to sell its produce — when does a farmstand become a store? When is a farm more than a farm? When is it primarily a store, or a restaurant, and the farm is just an adjunct to it? I mean, that’s that’s really hard to figure out.

Sabine Poux: Bill says those complicated projects underscore the need for some changes.

Bill Schmidt: Like any law of that kind, they need, you know, continual review and refreshing and so on over time.

Act 250 reform: ‘A lot of different visions’

Danielle Laberge: Reform is, like, you know, reform is not a sexy topic.

Sabine Poux: Winning question-asker Danielle Laberge again. She wonders what it would take to incentivize the creation of towns that are better for the environment. Like — how do we build denser, more walkable villages? How do we make it easier for people to produce their own power? Do we have housing for climate refugees?

Danielle Laberge: Like that would be better in terms of climate impact, and in terms of life quality, and it doesn't match with our Act 250 right now. So, what reforms would be, like, good for, like, climate-resilient communities? 

Sabine Poux: Sabina Haskell, chair of board that oversees Act 250, is open to reform.

Sabina says there are some core tenets of Act 250 that still hold true today — like respecting Vermont’s natural resources and protecting farmland. But:

Sabina Haskell: What's changed is how we live. And we have a lot of pretty significant issues to deal with right now in Vermont, including housing, which everybody talks about, and that we want to be more responsive to climate change. And this means we need to encourage growth where it makes sense and to protect open and working lands and protect our natural resources, our important ecological resources. 

Sabine Poux: When it comes to protecting working lands, lawmakers are talking about creating an agricultural exemption for all businesses that are, quote, “accessory on-farm businesses.” And that would make it so that farm stands and on-farm restaurants would be exempt from Act 250 in the same way that more traditional farms were in the initial design of the law.

But most conversations about Act 250 reform center around the role the law has played in Vermont’s ongoing housing crisis.

Sabine Poux: Carly, thank you for coming in this morning to talk with us about Act 250.

Carly Berlin: Thanks for having me.

Sabine Poux: Reporter Carly Berlin has been following the crisis for Vermont Public and VTDigger.

Sabine Poux: Carly, why is Act 250 coming across your desk right now? Why is it so big in the housing world?

Carly Berlin: So if you live in Vermont right now, it is probably not a surprise to you that we have a severe housing shortage. It can be really hard to find a decent place to rent. Our vacancy rates for apartments are exceptionally low. It's really hard to find a place to buy, too, especially if you're looking for a home that's relatively affordable. 

And getting our housing market to a relatively healthy place — it's going to require a lot more homes. The Vermont Housing Finance Agency analyzes local housing data and earlier this year, they put out a report that says Vermont needs 30,000 to 40,000 more homes by 2030. That's 5,000 to 6,700 per year. (We're talking about year-round primary homes here, not vacation or seasonal homes, by the way.) And right now, Vermont's only seeing around 2,000 or so homes built per year, that's based on building permits issued by towns, it's not a perfect metric. But it does show that Vermont doesn't appear to be keeping pace with the number of homes we need. 

Which is all to say: A lot of people who work in the housing world here, from developers to regional planners to affordable housing providers, they argue that Act 250 plays some role in this big housing deficit.

Sabine Poux: OK, but what role can it play, if there are so few permit denials in the first place? Like what's the holdup here?

Carly Berlin: Yeah, that's a good question. One reason is that Act 250 places limits on the number of new units someone can build. So there are those limits baked into the law.

So for example, there's this thing called the 10-5-5 rule. It says, when a single developer wants to build 10 new units of housing within a five mile radius in a five year timeframe, Act 250 kicks in. So if the project meets that 10 unit threshold, it has to go through Act 250 review. That rule, theoretically, it might have been intended to reduce sprawl, right? To keep housing development pretty tight and contained. But some Act 250 critics say it actually promotes sprawl. So, you might have a developer building apartments further away from each other so that they don't trigger this rule. 

Now, the legislature passed some carve outs to this rule this year, you know, raising the threshold to 25 units in some areas. But those exceptions, they only last a couple of years, and then they’ll be sunset.

But beyond these limits that are baked into the rule itself, there are also a lot of critiques about the Act 250 process and how it might discourage housing development. So when I talk to housing developers, there are a few main things that I hear. There's a lot left up to interpretation in Act 250. There's the fact that legal fees can stack up if a project drags out or gets appealed. You know, if a project stalls the cost of materials may go up, so a project gets that much more expensive.

All of that means there's a great deal of risk when it comes to Act 250. And some developers told me that that risk means they avoid housing projects that would need to go through Act 250 review at all.

Zeke Davisson: And it’s just not worth putting those years and that money into pre-development of a project like that… 

Carly Berlin: I spoke to Zeke Davisson. He’s with Summit Properties, which develops both market rate and affordable rental housing. 

Zeke Davisson: …to find out at the very, very end, after all of the work, after all the planning, after all the design, after all of that investment, to have an appeal trigger at the end of that is just too risky.

Carly Berlin: And Zeke says that chilling effect makes it really hard to put a number on the homes that don't get built because of Act 250.

Zeke Davisson: The things you can collect data on are also the things you can predict, right? You can predict that it's going to cost $2,000 extra unit, take an extra six months. If everything goes well, right? Like, those you can quantify. The things you can't quantify are the projects that never get off the ground or the risk of somebody appealing and killing the project.

A group of lawmakers sitting around a table in a yellow-walled committee room in the Statehouse
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs discussed possible changes to Act 250 earlier this year.

Sabine Poux: Wow. So given all those criticisms of the process of the law itself, what do you think are the chances that lawmakers take Act 250 reform on this upcoming session?

Carly Berlin: I definitely think it's possible. I think housing policy reform will be among the top priorities we see lawmakers consider this session. Gov. Phil Scott certainly hopes that's the case. Here's him speaking at a press conference in November about why he thinks government rules like Act A50 cause Vermont's housing crunch.

Gov. Scott: I believe some of the chokepoint is the regulatory system that makes building or rehabbing the homes Vermonters need too costly, too slow and, therefore, too limited and too unaffordable for homeowners and renters. So we need to make dramatic changes. We can no longer just nibble around the edges.

Carly Berlin: Now, there are a lot of different visions swirling around right now for how to reform Act 250. And a lot of them in some way look at how to lower barriers for more housing development. The Scott administration has talked about exempting all housing projects in state-designated development areas, like villages and downtowns. A state working group has been working on a study that looks at creating a whole statewide land-use map for Act 250. Another study looks at giving municipalities that already have robust local zoning a way out of the Act 250 process. So there are a ton of different ideas for for how to change Act 250 going into this new year. And I think there's a lot of momentum.

And on the other hand — there's plenty of hesitation for for blowing up this law, right? Because it's it’s kind of an existential thing. Will changing Act 250 fundamentally change what Vermont feels like, what sets it apart from other places? Our old settlement patterns with village centers and downtowns surrounded by farmland or conservation areas … you know, would tearing down Act 250 give way to lots of suburban sprawl? I think there are plenty of concerns about that and a lot of push and pull going into the session.

Sabine Poux: Wow, thanks, Carly, for laying all those visions out for us.

Carly Berlin: Thanks for having me.

A state of limbo

Sabine Poux: What makes Vermont “Vermont-y”? Who is Vermont for?

These aren’t just questions about reforming a law. They’re questions about our shared values, and how we want our state to change — or not — over the next 50 years.

John Holland and Matt Lombard, of Peace Field Farm, hope one of those changes will involve finally getting their farm-to-table restaurant up and running.

The Peace Field barn from above.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
The Peace Field barn from above.

They’re currently going through the Act 250 process again. They recently submitted a new application, for an even more modest plan. The neighbors are already fighting it. As of the time we’re publishing this story, the Natural Resources Board is still considering the application.

A lot of others may have given up by now. Remember, the Act 250 process is expensive. It costs a lot of time and money. John says he’s had hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees up to this point — and there’s still no guarantee he’ll even get his permit.

An empty dining room with a long table and chairs covered in white wrapping.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
One of the dining rooms at Peace Field sits empty.

And there’s also another cost, according to Matt, the farmer.

Matt Lombard: It's had a significant negative impact on me. And it's been very difficult to navigate through scaling up the farm operations, you know, in an effort to foresee what the supply needs are going to be for the dining establishments in the future. That’s not something that you just plan for next week. You know, the restaurant business thrives on consistency and momentum. And and nothing, we've had no no momentum throughout this process. And for me, that’s been the most challenging piece.

Sabine Poux: John and the Peace Field folks just got another thumbs-up from the town, to turn their barn into a restaurant, a few two days a week.

But that doesn’t mean much without permission from the state.

For now, Peace Field’s main barn is in a state of limbo. Some vegetables dry out on a table in the attic. Wooden tables sit under a thin layer of dust. The barn’s tall, vaulted ceilings hang hollow above dining room furniture still wrapped in ghost-white packaging.




Sabine Poux reported this episode. Editing and additional production from Josh Crane and Burgess Brown. Angela Evancie is our Executive Producer. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Sophie Stephens, Pete Hirschfeld, Bruce Post, Mikaela Osler, Marjorie Strong, Prudence Doherty, Katherine Sims, Peter Gregory, Caleb Elder, Todd Heyman, Christine and Mark Hughes, Brian Shupe, Mary Kasamatsu and Mimi Aoun.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.

Sabine Poux is a reporter/producer with Brave Little State. She comes to Vermont by way of Kenai, Alaska, where she was a reporter, news director, and on-air host for almost three years. Her reporting on commercial fishing and energy has been syndicated across Alaska and on NPR.
Josh Crane is part of Vermont Public's Engagement Journalism team. He's the senior producer and managing editor for Brave Little State, a podcast based on questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by the audience, and runs Vermont Public's Sonic ID project.