An effort to loosen environmental laws in downtowns while toughening them in rural areas unraveled Monday after senators labeled the bill an inappropriate attempt to weave together unrelated pieces of legislation.
The procedural snag is the latest act in a long legislative drama over how Vermont should modernize Act 250, the 50-year-old landmark environmental law.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, acting as president of the Senate, on Friday and again Monday agreed with objections that the environmental amendments were not “germane” to the underlying affordable housing bill.
That parliamentary maneuver prompted Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) to pull the bill from consideration — for now.
The setback was disappointing but not fatal to the effort to update the law, said Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
“I’m a patient person,” Bray said Monday. “We’ve been working on some of these issues for six years.”
His committee plans to introduce a new bill Tuesday that will merge the housing and environmental elements into a single bill, eliminating any claim they are unrelated.
Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) said it was unfortunate that his colleagues resorted to procedural tactics that would only delay — not defeat — the bill’s progress.
“I feel like people are avoiding voting on the merits of the bill right now,” Campion said.
Signs of trouble emerged last week when Sens. John Rodgers and Bobby Starr, both Democrats from the rural Essex/Orleans district, objected to how an amendment from the Senate Natural Resources Committee had been drafted and passed.
Rodgers, who sits on that committee, owns significant timber land and objected to new requirements for Act 250 review of roads and driveways more than 2,000 feet long. Starr, meanwhile, questioned why feed dealers didn’t get the same exemptions from Act 250 as forest products businesses.
Both suggested that the committee process, undertaken via videoconference, had been less than transparent, especially for people in rural areas with spotty internet connections. Rodgers had been unable to vote on the amendment because of his connection.
His critique prompted committee chair Bray to defend the committee’s work. Bray pointed out that Rodgers “hasn’t been able to be with us for the last month.”
Rodgers, a masonry contractor and hemp farmer who recently purchased a bed and breakfast, responded with an email blasting anyone who took issue with his work ethic as a “snippy little bitch.” He apologized the next day, but the exchange highlighted what a charged subject the Act 250 legislation has become.
The goal of S.237 was to make it easier to build housing in downtowns and neighborhoods identified for growth, where services, jobs, and utilities are concentrated, Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) explained.
One key way to encourage this would be to remove the “unnecessarily complicated and duplicative regulations" that drive up development costs, he said.
The bill proposed to exempt from Act 250 review projects in many downtowns, reasoning that local zoning would address some of the same environmental concerns. Concentrating development in downtowns would also indirectly relieve some of the development pressures in rural areas, he argued.
Bray’s committee proposed adding an array of Act 250 changes in an effort to balance the relaxation of environmental restrictions in downtowns.
But Zuckerman said he had little choice on Friday but to rule that many of the Act 250 pieces of the bill — which addressed forest fragmentation, recreational trails and forest products businesses — were not related enough to piggyback on the housing bill.
He made a similar determination Monday, when Bray tried to add an exemption for recreational trails in downtowns. Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin) said the move appeared to be a parliamentary tactic to expand the connections between housing and Act 250. Zuckerman, after consulting with Senate Secretary John Bloomer, ruled against that, as well.
The spat put Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, in a tricky position. He said he's personally in favor of the proposed Act 250 amendments, but was forced to rule against their attachment to the housing bill to preserve the public’s faith in the Senate as an institution. Amendments must be related to underlying legislation to ensure laws aren't passed without sufficient input from the public, Zuckerman said.