A bill meant to encourage the construction of affordable downtown housing advanced in the Vermont Senate on Thursday despite concerns that proposed changes to the state’s landmark land use law, Act 250, have been hastily drafted.
The Senate sidestepped the acrimony that flared a day earlier when two senators blasted the process that shaped the bill.
Sen. John Rodgers (D- Essex/Orleans) took issue on Wednesday with the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee's work, noting that neither he nor Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin), both members of the committee, had been able to vote on an amendment earlier this week due to telecommunications difficulties.
The residents of his rural district are frustrated about their inability to participate in online legislative hearings, especially on bills of such consequence, Rodgers said.
“I don’t understand why pieces of legislation that are going to affect so many people are allowed to move forward in a Zoom format,” Rodgers said. “It’s not transparent, and it’s not friendly to the public or the people who want to participate.”
Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) echoed the concerns when he asked whether agricultural feed dealers could get some of the same exemptions from Act 250 as those secured by the wood products industry.
“Who knew you were doing this?” Starr asked.“If we had been in town and knew what you were doing, we’d have been in there in a heartbeat.”
The committee’s chair, Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), defended its process and said he regretted that Rodgers “hasn’t been able to be with us for the last month.”
Rodgers has been participating in Senate business sporadically in recent weeks due to his workload as a masonry contractor, hemp farmer and neophyte bed-and-breakfast owner.
Earlier this month, he missed a filing deadline to be on the August 11 primary ballot, nothing that he had “too many things on my plate.”
Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington), vice chair of the committee, issued a sharp rebuke of his colleagues, something rare for the normally decorous body. Campion said both senators had publicly “accused the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee of acting in a sly, secret manner."
The comments were not true, Campion said, and "reflect poorly, in my opinion, on the two senators, their district, as well as this body.”
That testy exchange behind them, the Senate on Thursday turned to the nuts and bolts of the lengthy, complex bill. It aims to simultaneously relax regulatory restrictions for Vermont's downtowns and increase them to prevent further fragmentation of forestland.
Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) said the goal was to make it easier to build housing in downtowns, where services, jobs and utilities are concentrated, and in the process relieve some of the development pressures in rural areas.
One key way to accomplish this is to remove the “unnecessarily complicated and duplicative regulations" that can require projects to face state review under Act 250 as well as robust local planning and zoning regulations.
“We can ... affect housing policy changes that don’t necessarily cost money but will in the long run make housing less costly to build and buy,” Sirotkin said.
The bill is dense and replete with changes that could have wide-ranging implications. For example, it encourages municipalities to allow the subdivision of properties in downtowns down to an eighth of an acre where municipal water and sewer are available.
That has struck some as an overreach, a statewide mandate better left to the discretion of localities. Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) said that while he supported much of the bill, this top-down approach concerned him.
“It creates the impression that the state is basically taking over what has traditionally been a municipal function,” Brock said.
Sirotkin countered that communities that didn’t want to or couldn’t increase their downtown densities by 2023 — due to limited water supplies or school constraints, for example — need only file a report explaining their decision.
To balance the exemption of downtowns and neighborhood development areas from Act 250, environmental advocates like the Vermont Natural Resources Council have argued for greater protections of forestland.
This is one of the provisions to which Rodgers, who said he owns significant rural property, objects. The return of such restrictions would amount to government effectively taking private property, he said.
The new regulations, expected to be debated by the full Senate on Friday, would require new roads and driveways more than 2,000 feet long to be reviewed under Act 250. Past iterations of such a “road rule” have incentivized poor development practices intended to avoid triggering Act 250 review.
The bill would also include an 18-month exemption from Act 250 for trail networks. The period is meant to give trail groups and state officials time to find a solution that balances the need to protect large forests with avoiding onerous reviews for low-impact land uses.
Administration officials have complained that the handful of changes represent the same kind of piecemeal revision that has plagued Act 250 for years and lack the structural and governance changes needed to improve administration of the law.