It was a big year for Act 250 and climate change in the Vermont Statehouse. What shook out?
Lawmakers this session considered major changes to Act 250, Vermont’s biggest land use and development law.
Created in 1970 after an historic boom in development, the legislation aims to protect Vermont’s natural spaces and working lands. Many credit Act 250 with preserving the state’s rural character. But as development pressure mounts again, lawmakers and advocates want to revisit the law.
They tussled with Gov. Scott this session over how Act 250 is governed and new environmental protections, ultimately scoring a veto. But they also made some headway when it comes to making Act 250 friendlier to affordable housing projects in village centers. So what made it to the finish line?
VPR Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb spoke with climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So, Abagael, help us with the context here: Why were lawmakers pushing for these changes this session?
Abagael Giles: That’s a great question, Mitch. So, a few years back, there was this commission that took a look at all the ways Act 250 could be improved. And they came out with recommendations for changes — most of which haven’t been made.
And a lot of what lawmakers took on this session were recommendations from that commission.
I think the housing pressure we’ve seen out of the pandemic really kind of hammered home for lawmakers and the governor, the sort of development and housing pressure Vermont might soon see.
There’s this sense that we need Act 250, which is really our big land use and development law, to be in top form so we can be ready for that. But the problem is, everyone has a different idea about what top form looks like.
OK, Abagael, so before we dive into the policy, can you just give us an update about where things stand now?
Sure, so early on in the session, lawmakers from all over the state came forward with small changes to Act 250, the things they felt really mattered to people in their districts.
A lot of those got packed into a big bill called S.234. It takes on who gets to decide if there’s a challenge over Act 250 jurisdiction, affordable housing developments, forest fragmentation, flood regulations. But Gov. Scott? He didn’t like a few of the policies in that bill, and he promised to veto it.
So lawmakers struck a deal at the eleventh hour. They kind of copied and pasted the stuff they agreed with him over into a second bill — a housing bill the governor likes. And then they decided to send him both.
The big bill? Scott vetoed it as promised last week. But he also went ahead and signed that smaller bill.
Wow, quite the maneuver. Lawmakers must have really liked the stuff the governor promised to veto, if they were willing to send it to him twice.
Yeah, there are two big policies that didn’t make it into the little bill, the one Scott says he plans to sign.
One is an overhaul of how Act 250 is governed. So you’ve got eight district commissions around the state, and they decide whether a new development project — say a housing subdivision or a new parking lot — triggers Act 250 review and needs a special permit. If a developer disagrees, they can appeal that decision in environmental court, all the way to Vermont’s Supreme Court.
But that’s not how it used to be. Rep. Seth Bongartz, a Democrat from Manchester, he was pushing for appeals to go to a paid, part-time professional board. He says that would build better Act 250 case law and strengthen and streamline how Act 250 is enforced.
Environmental groups really liked this. But the governor says it would create more opportunity for naysayers to obstruct new development projects, and actually vetoed that big Act 250 bill we were talking about over this. Mayors in Montpelier and Burlington also opposed the change, as did some developers.
Now, lawmakers also wanted to see new, stricter regulations to limit development that interrupts intact blocks of forest around the state. Lots of new subdivisions do. But that didn’t make the copy and paste.
I’d love to talk now about the policies lawmakers and Gov. Scott were able to agree on. There were some big changes around affordable housing. What happened there?
Broadly, everyone’s goal here is to make it easier to build new housing, especially affordable housing, in Vermont’s downtowns and village centers. These are places that are walkable.
From a climate perspective, what we don’t want to see are more random houses all over the countryside. The latest UN climate report actually calls this out as an important climate solution that towns and cities can take on.
So this bill says: OK, any towns with their own local zoning bylaws and strong flood regulations? They can apply with the state for special permission to make most new housing developments in their downtowns exempt from Act 250 review — even if their downtown is in a flood plain.
The bill also raises an old cap on how big an affordable housing project can be and still be exempt from Act 250 review.
Hang on. Did you say lawmakers, the governor, they want to make it easier for towns to exempt affordable housing developments in flood plains from Act 250 review? Won’t that make Vermont less resilient to the kind of flooding we’re going to see more of with climate change?
You know Mitch, I had the same question as a climate reporter! You start to glean after a while that building in floodplains is pretty much always a bad idea.
But here’s the thing: here in Vermont, a lot of our villages started out as mill towns. So they’re in floodplains. If we want to create the sort of walkable housing here that climate experts say we need, it’s going to mean building in floodplains.
The idea is to protect the big, pristine, intact river corridors and wetlands that gave all that benefit during Tropical Storm Irene from sprawl, and kind of sacrifice the downtowns where we’ve already impacted the rivers, but build houses that can withstand the sorts of flood events we might see in the future.
And too: lawmakers hope this will incentivize communities that don’t have any flood hazard regulations on the books at all to adopt them.
OK, so we have housing, but also some changes to how farms and logging businesses are regulated under Act 250. Can you talk us through those?
Yeah, so winters in Vermont are warming faster than the rest of the year on average. And that’s when loggers do their work. They need the ground to be frozen so they can get their big equipment up and down logging roads.
Right now, their permits say they have to deliver their wood to the mill during the day. But Scott and lawmakers agreed that it was reasonable to let them do it at night, when roads are more likely to be frozen.
And then too there’s a study about how farms are creating these new accessory businesses on-site. Some people say they should be subject to Act 250 review. But some people say farms need all the breaks they can get, and if they want to have a wedding barn, that should also be exempt.