Lawmakers return to business; agenda to include Act 250 revisions

SHOREHAM — Addison County lawmakers this week began the second half of the 2019 legislative session, and a few of them took time at Monday’s legislative breakfast in Shoreham to discuss some of their top priorities for the stretch drive to the final gavel.
Monday’s breakfast came after the Legislature’s traditional hiatus of town meeting week, and featured only two lawmakers: Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, and Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven. Both are dealing primarily with environmental legislation; Bray chairs the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee, and Smith is a member of the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee.
Last week’s respite from Statehouse action gave lawmakers a chance to reconnect with their constituents and reflect on the first two months of the 2019 session.
Smith and Bray were asked what they believed were some of the most important pieces of legislation going forward.
For Smith, it’s a proposed rewrite of Act 250, the state’s land use planning law. The law was originally passed in 1970, and lawmakers believe it should be revised to better reflect 21st-century development and environmental priorities.
A “Vermont Commission on Act 250: The next 50 years” has provided recommendations for the bill now under consideration. Those recommendations include:
•Requiring that development pitched at elevations of more than 2,000 feet come under Act 250 jurisdiction, as a means of protecting mountain ridgelines. The current Act 250 trigger is 2,500 feet and higher.
•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.
Smith said he’s concerned some of the proposed revisions to Act 250 could hamper development and farming.
“It appears to me that Act 250 jurisdiction is going to cover most of Vermont, and not just some large development projects, including forestry and agricultural operations,” Smith said.
He acknowledged the proposed Act 250 rewrite would make it easier to develop “designated downtown centers” that have been vetted by the Vermont Agency of Commerce & Community Development. But there are only 23 such downtown centers in the state, and they’re largely built out, according to Smith, who specifically cited the case of Main Street Bristol.
“There isn’t really any opportunity to do any new growth and development,” he said.
“There’s no place to grow in those areas… If we’re going to do that, we need to include areas the towns have designated for growth and development, whether it be commercial, residential or mixed use,” he said.
He predicted the Legislature will need the full biennium to process the Act 250 bill.
Bray singled out three bills his committee has been dealing with. The bills seek to promote clean water, curtail single-use plastic bags, and regulating the use of polyfluoroalkyl (Pfa) substances — which don’t break down — in products handled and consumed by humans.
“It has become a ubiquitous compound,” Bray said of Pfa. “It’s a family of 5,000 compounds, and Vermont has regulated five as a result of the Bennington exposure. We have learned they are carcinogenic in many ways. From a public health point of view, we want to make sure Vermonters are not exposed to these carcinogens, and start to understand where they are, how they travel, and start to regulate them from a public health point of view.”
An abortion bill was discussed on Monday in Shoreham (click here to read that story). Also discussed at Monday’s breakfast were:
•Property taxes. Smith said “rising property taxes” was one of the most prevalent concerns he heard from his constituents during town meeting week. He was one of the ballot counters for the Mount Abraham Unified School District budget, which passed by only 13 votes.
“(Property taxes) are becoming a hurdle for a lot of people,” Smith said.
•Act 46. Breakfast participants noted the state’s education governance consolidation law has produced fewer decisions for town meeting voters. Addison County communities used to vote on a local school budget and elected local school directors. With Act 46, residents in most local communities now vote on a single Pre-k-12 budget. School directors are now elected at-large to a single school board.
“(Town meeting) has basically become an informational meeting,” Salisbury resident Heidi Willis lamented.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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