Local lawmaker leads effort to revise Act 250
MONTPELIER — The late Sen. Art Gibb, R-Weybridge, played a huge role in 1970 in the drafting of Act 250, the state’s landmark land use planning law.
Almost 50 years later, another Addison County lawmaker — Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury — is playing a substantial role in what could be major revisions to Act 250.
Sheldon recently chaired the “Vermont Commission on Act 250: The next 50 years,” a panel charged with “reviewing the vision for Act 250 adopted in the 1970s and its implementation with the objective of ensuring that, over the next 50 years, Act 250 supports Vermont’s economic, environmental, and land use planning goals.”
That panel, formed during the fall of 2017, submitted its report earlier this month. It’s a document full of recommendations, some of which will find their way into legislation that could change the way future development proposals are considered within the context of Act 250’s 10 evaluation criteria.
“The intention of Act 250 is to protect Vermont’s natural resources and allow reasonable use and economic development,” Sheldon said during a recent interview at the Statehouse, where she chairs the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee. “We’re looking to adjust that balance, given all the new information that we have today.”
Sheldon’s committee took dozens of hours of testimony at the Statehouse and during public meetings throughout the state, gleaning Act 250 feedback from citizens, community planners, developers and environmentalists.
“We got paid for 14 meetings, but had a lot more,” Sheldon said with a smile.
What emerged from that testimony — and an on-line survey — was an 80-page report offering a variety of potential changes to Act 250, including:
• Requiring that regional plans be reviewed for consistency with the statutory goals for municipal and regional planning and that, to be used in Act 250, the regional plans must be vetted as being consistent with those goals.
• Updating Act 250’s floodways criterion so that it applies to flood hazard areas and river corridors.
• Amending the energy conservation criterion to specifically reference energy efficiency.
• Amending the transportation criterion to include review of the safety and congestion impacts to bicycle, pedestrian, and other transit infrastructure, and better define when it is appropriate for Act 250 to require projects to incorporate transportation demand strategies and require connectivity to transit services other than single-occupancy vehicles.
• Repealing the exemption for slate quarries.
• Repealing the exemption for farming, logging, and forestry below 2,500 feet, when these activities occur in areas that have been designated as “critical resource areas.”
• Requiring the Natural Resources Board or its successor work with the other state agencies to create a predictable timetable for the Act 250 permitting process.
It remains to be seen how many of these and other committee proposals will earn support by the General Assembly and ultimately Gov. Phil Scott.
Sheldon said she and her colleagues got a sense during their work that a majority of Vermonters have been generally satisfied with Act 250. They “heard consensus” that Act 250 goals are still relevant, though “we’re not doing the greatest job meeting them,” Sheldon said.
She offered some of the committee’s thoughts on how Act 250 could be updated to better reflect 21st-century realities and values. One of the panel’s priorities is to have the law reflect ecological impacts arising from climate change.
“We’ve made a recommendation that one (Act 250 criterion) should be about air and include greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “So adding that element of climate change review, if you will, is something we would very much like to see happen.”
Sheldon explained much has changed in the world since Act 250 was drafted, and the law hasn’t kept pace with those changes.
“In the same way the planning world has grown a lot since the act was envisioned, the knowledge of our resources has also increased significantly, and our ability to access data has increased significantly,” she said.
“We use different science to talk about… how we can create resilient communities by protecting our river corridors,” she added. “So very much related to climate change is another recommendation that we’ve come to, around protecting ecological functions and getting that piece of it into Act 250 by identifying what we’re calling ‘critical resource areas.’ And the most easily defined right now would be the river corridors.”
The committee is also suggesting that development pitched at elevations of more than 1,500 feet come under Act 250 jurisdiction, as a means of protecting mountain ridgelines, according to Sheldon. The current Act 250 trigger is 2,500 feet and higher, she noted.
Committee members were also keen about adjusting Act 250 to be more supportive of development in village centers.
“We’re looking at location-based jurisdiction, starting with our settled areas,” she said.
For example, Sheldon believes some forms of development could receive Act 250 pre-approval for designated downtowns in a similar way that individual projects have been green-lighted in Middlebury’s industrial park.
“That’s trying to make it easier to develop in our downtowns, in a sense with the commitment to the original findings of Act 250 — developing around settlement patterns,” Sheldon said.
“When we talk about location-based jurisdiction, we’re really saying we want development in our settled areas, we want to have a viable rural economy in the working landscape surrounding those, and then we want that surrounded by natural protected areas that provide the air and clean water and wildlife habitat that we all depend on,” she added “It’s sort of a three-tiered, location-based jurisdictional approach.”
Sheldon said she and her colleagues received little pushback from developers during their review of Act 250. Most of people’s bad experiences with Act 250, Sheldon believes, have primarily stemmed from “management problems,” rather than fundamental disagreement with the law.
“The developers who are interested in having a level of confidence, I would hope could find a way to support these suggestions,” she said. “And I would say that Chittenden County has certainly seen a lot of growth since Act 250 has been around, and Act 250 has applied across the state equally.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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