Attorney Brooke Dingledine addressing the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee
A plan to streamline Act 250 review of development projects in Vermont fell apart Friday after lawmakers refused to fund a new statewide natural resources board to review major projects.
The powerful House Ways and Means Committee stripped from a bill proposed fee increases meant to pay an estimated $600,000 annually for a centralized, professional review board that would have taken over many responsibilities of volunteer local review panels.
“I don’t think the new professional board is a good idea,” said Janet Ancel (D-Calais), chair of the committee. “I think it's overly expensive, I think it will reduce access to the process, and I think it will result in more lawyering up.”
Even members of the House committee that voted last week in favor of the proposal seemed content to let it collapse.
“At the end of the day, I wasn’t comfortable with the direction we were heading,” said Rep. Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury), who chairs the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee.
Rep. Jim McCullough (D-Williston) said he was “thrilled” at the turn of events because he never liked the changes that "eviscerated the district commissions.”
Currently, review of development projects under Act 250, the state’s seminal land-use law, begins at one of nine district commissions, each of which is made up of three local volunteers. Their decisions can be appealed to the environmental division of the Superior Court and then to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Critics say the three-step process makes review of contested projects lengthy, expensive and unpredictable. Under the proposed process, major projects would have gone straight to the new state board. Appeals of its decisions would have headed directly to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Establishing a five-member professional board was part of a delicate compromise struck before the legislative session by administration officials and the Vermont Natural Resources Council. The House Natural Resources Committee made changes to preserve some degree of local control, but several members, in response to testimony from citizens, fretted over the bill.
"We heard compelling testimony from citizen after citizen after citizen after citizen — 'Do not do this new board. It takes away the heart of Act 250,'" McCullough said.
Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said he was disappointed that the compromise fell apart.
“To remove a major piece of that balanced agreement is going to make it almost impossible for the administration to support,” Walke said.
The administration had hoped to streamline the law to exempt proposed downtown projects that already face significant regulations. It didn’t support the fee increases, he said.
Brian Shupe, executive director of the VNRC, said Act 250 needs not only updates to environmental criteria, such as requirements protecting forests and addressing climate change, but also to how it is administered.
“We’re disappointed that this does nothing to change the structural deficiencies in the program,” Shupe said.