MONTPELIER — Proposed changes to the structure of Act 250 wouldn’t hurt local input as some fear they would, says the environmental group that suggested them.
Last week, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, alongside the Scott administration, proposed a bill to the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife that would change how Act 250 permits are administered, doing away with District Commissions and replacing them with a central three-member Natural Resources Board with two regional per diem members, said Jon Groveman, policy and water program director at VNRC.
He said VNRC offered testimony again on Tuesday.
Groveman said Wednesday that after the last legislative session, the Scott administration approached VNRC because it felt it and the VNRC had some common ground on changes to Act 250 — the state’s signature land use law passed back in 1970.
Groveman said the VNRC wasn’t happy about the Act 250 Environmental Board being eliminated in 2004, as the board worked as an appellate board for Act 250 applications and was useful in providing guidance and clarity to the local District Commissions.
“We wanted to see the Environmental Board put back, the governor was opposed to that,” said Groveman.
The proposed compromise is to create a Natural Resources Board that would hear all “major” Act 250 permit applications. Right now, applications go before three-member District Commissions made up of people nominated by legislators and appointed by the governor. Appeals, rather than go to the Environmental Court and then to the Vermont Supreme Court, would go straight to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Groveman said it will be district coordinators deciding what constitutes a “minor” application and what counts as a “major” application. He said 80% of Act 250 applications are classified as minor.
The three-member Natural Resources Board would then be joined by two regional members from whatever region a project in question is being built in. This is where there would still be local oversight, said Groveman.
Some have said this setup bears similarities to how the Public Utility Commission, which oversees cell phone towers and solar fields, among others, is structured. For them, that’s not a good thing.
“As I said in my testimony yesterday, the District Commissions are the place for citizens to be effective in an informal setting, and the whole idea of creating a PUC-like structure for a contested case, it makes no sense at all,” said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. “The PUC is an enormous problem for public participation, and I guess this is what happens when you get lawyers writing proposals for public process. They write a process that works for lawyers, but as we’ve seen with the PUC process, it’s impossible for citizens.”
Smith said even though the District Commissions are important, there’s room for improvement, namely with how their members are appointed. They could also stand to be more citizen-friendly, she said.
She rejected claims that the District Commission decisions have been inconsistent, saying that what might be right for one county wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate in another.
Groveman said it’s his hope that people’s concerns about local participation will be alleviated once more about the proposal is known. He said those applying for major projects will have to notify abutting landowners, regional planners, state agencies, and the municipality, and have an informal meeting before submitting the application. That, plus the two regional NRB members will maintain local participation.
“From our perspective, you get a stronger Act 250 with an independent board of professionals who are well-vetted, it’s separate from the Executive Branch, it’s not political, they have the resources to deal with complicated issues, it involves regional input, so you maintain the regional input but it’s basically a body that will have more ability to deal with these issues,” he said.
He said while the proposal streamlines things in some ways, it also adds criteria for the NRB to consider, such as impacts to climate change, and forest fragmentation. It restricts development along ridge lines, creates river corridor regulations, address sprawl near interstate interchanges, and waives certain requirements for developments in designated downtown areas to encourage development there.
What actually changes with regard to Act 250 remains to be seen.
“Today, or sometime this week when we have time, my committee will discuss what our next steps are and who else we need to hear from,” said Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife.
She said her committee’s version of Act 250 also calls for the creation of a strong NRB, and she’s heard the comparisons to the Public Utility Commission. She said she doesn’t want to see public participation in the Act 250 process wane or become more difficult.
Sheldon said the Act 250 work being done, which began last session with information gathering, is a huge undertaking and there may be elements that move forward while some remain to be worked on. Her goal is to get much of it ready to be sent over for consideration in the Senate.
“It’s a big undertaking that we have here, it’s fine that it’s taking two sessions,” she said. “I don’t think anyone was surprised about that. You wouldn’t want to do it in a hurry.”