Environmentalists and developers say they are willing to compromise on Section 250

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A road leading to an area where houses are clustered.
South Burlington District on October 25, 2021. File photo: Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday directly criticized two bills being considered by the Legislature’s Environment Committee, calling one an “economic disaster” and calling the other “a law that Vermonters don’t even know exists.” “This puts them at risk of violation.”

The approach came as a surprise to VTDigger, they said, as housing developers and environmentalists are more united than in recent memory after months of trying to reach a compromise on the direction of regulatory reform.

In his weekly newsletter, Scott proposed H.687, which would extend Act 250’s automatic jurisdiction to most of the state, and Bill S, which would create a new statewide program to monitor river systems in response to summer flooding. Criticized the .213. Briefing session.

“We cannot accept any housing bill that does not meet the current requirements,” he said, indicating that he would likely veto any bill that strengthens environmental protections.

But state lawmakers, developers and members of environmental groups say this session has the unique potential to find a compromise on Section 250 reform that will satisfy both housing developers and environmentalists. It is claimed that there is.

Efforts to amend Act 250, Vermont’s sweeping land use law, have been going on for years.

Historically, developers have found that Act 250 has caused costly delays that can leave them unable to build homes as fast as they need to be profitable or simply meet growing demand. It has been claimed that there is a sex. Environmentalists counter that, in fact, laws should be strengthened in certain areas to protect important resources such as forests from rapid exploitation.

Optimism about a possible deal stems from a working group that met throughout the summer and fall and included a wide range of stakeholders, including housing developers and environmental groups.

“The feeling coming out of the summer review committee is that this compromise is the biggest compromise we’ve seen on Section 250 to this point,” said Megan Sullivan, lobbyist for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. he said. The organization is pushing for more housing to support Vermont’s growing workforce.

In conclusion, members of the task force proposed the reform of Act 250, which would weaken laws in certain areas to make housing construction easier and strengthen laws in other areas to preserve some of Vermont’s natural habitat. Agreed on the framework. environment.

However, the working group was not able to iron out all the details. Currently, four bills are circulating in various committees proposing different versions of that framework. H.687, H.719 (sponsored by Scott), S.308, and the BE Home Act, a bill from the Senate Economic Development Committee. , Housing and general affairs that have not yet been numbered.

But the principle of give and take was clear.

“Promoting new housing development while ensuring the preservation of rural working lands and ecologically important natural resources are not mutually exclusive goals,” the group’s report said. has been written.

On Wednesday, the governor suggested that was a statement he disagreed with.

“We cannot allow a few special interests and a few committees to block the progress we need,” he said.

When asked to name the special interest group, Scott pointed to the Vermont Natural Resources Council, an environmental nonprofit that has historically advocated for strengthening Act 250.

Their mission is “to protect the environment as much as possible,” he said.

“My mission is to make Vermont more affordable, build more housing, and make Vermont safer,” he said. “So we have two different missions.”

Scott’s message came with props. During his remarks, he presented two large maps. One shows dots representing Act 250 authorization, and the other shows large parts of the state in red, representing areas that would be given Act 250 jurisdiction under the new bill.

The 250 bill, sponsored by Rep. Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury) and Rep. Seth Bongaerts (D-Manchester), is being considered by the House Environment and Energy Committee, which Sheldon chairs. There is.

On Thursday, at a separate press event, Sheldon told Scott: “I’m distancing myself from the environment. That was heartbreaking in a way for me.”

“I think it’s amazing that the governor of Vermont is saying that environmental issues are kind of being driven by special interests,” she said. “All Vermonters understand that the environment is our heart and soul.”

Sheldon said he hadn’t studied the map in detail, but called it an “incendiary fear-mongering bomb” and said his expansion plan had not been finalized six weeks into the session.

She said her committee has just begun discussing Act 250, and while H.687 is not a housing bill, it would eliminate Act 250 review in the downtown area and require the Town to use Act 250 to accommodate growth. He said he would be able to change the jurisdiction of the country.

He referred to the working group’s agreement. According to the report, the group said any reforms would support the development of compact areas, support the growth of rural areas in an appropriate manner, strengthen the protection of key natural resources, make the permitting process clearer, and Agreed that duplication with other regulations should be minimized.

The report states that “consensus would not be compromised if individual recommendations were removed from the package.”

Brian Shoop, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said Sheldon’s bill would “bring a lot of land under the jurisdiction of Act 250,” but that “the process is still ongoing.” Stated. No one has voted on the bill yet. ”

Shoop said the governor’s signature on the organization comes after his staff spent the summer working with officials from the Scott administration on “what actually became the framework of the agreement for Section 250 reform.” He said he was surprised that he had.

Asked about the governor’s comments, Sullivan, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said it was too early in the session to criticize any single bill deeply while there was “a lot of discussion and simmering.” .

Although some bills have been introduced “we don’t believe we can reach a compromise,” he said, “we will continue to have a conversation about what a compromise might look like and how the bill could achieve that.” ,” she said. ”

Kathy Beyer, senior vice president of Evernorth, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, served on the task force that met over the summer and also serves on the board of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

He said there is no question that Act 250 could make the development process longer, more difficult and more expensive. If a Law 250 permit is challenged, the process could take 12 to 24 months, she said.

“It’s primarily a matter of time, but time adds cost,” she said.

Because many of Evernorth’s projects fall into the priority housing category, 80% of them are already exempt from Act 250, Bayer said.

She said the working group had some challenging discussions.

“When I started, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get to the report,” she said.

Now, she supports the deal, saying it makes it impossible for developers and environmentalists to cherry-pick the types of reforms that benefit them.

“I think one of the most important things we can do for Vermont’s landscape is answer the question, ‘Where should we build our homes?’” At the same time, we’re also concerned about preserving the land and working environment. We’re talking,” Bayer said. “We have to answer those questions together.”

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