- Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
- Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and legislators on the final day of the session
On the last day of the legislative session, Vermont lawmakers passed a sprawling housing bill that they hope Gov. Phil Scott will sign and a controversial land-use reform bill they’re certain he won’t.
Their actions Thursday reflected a last-minute decision by Democratic leaders to focus their dwindling legislative energies on addressing the housing crisis instead of reforming Act 250, the state’s beleaguered land-use and development law.
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) said that during her tour of the state last summer and again on a visit to Stowe on Wednesday, housing was the No. 1 concern of residents.
“Vermonters can’t afford it,” Balint said. “There’s not enough of it. Families can’t move back here. People who thought they’d be coming to settle here can’t.”
With Scott threatening to veto the Act 250 bill, Balint said, the best move for the legislature was to salvage some of the housing incentives it included. Senators moved them into a different housing bill, S.226, and promptly passed it.
- Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
- Gov. Phil Scott
At least a dozen House members and nearly as many senators have announced they are not standing for reelection. Many are retiring; others are running for higher office.
One of those was Balint, who — along with Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden) and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray — is running for Vermont’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Balint struggled to get through remarks she knew would be her last to colleagues and praised them for their tireless work on behalf of Vermont through a challenging biennium. Much of the session was conducted remotely during the pandemic.
“It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to serve in this body and to be elected as your president pro tem,” she said.
Balint and other lawmakers cited a litany of accomplishments during the session: bolstering the state pension system, expanding broadband and making massive investments in workforce training. But it was the housing bill that took center stage on the final day.
- Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
- The session's final day
Ram Hinsdale praised that section of the bill, which she said would help some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. “This is a really meaningful investment for people who are in some of our most substandard housing,” Ram Hinsdale said.
Other provisions include funding a position in the Attorney General’s Office to respond to consumer complaints against contractors and $200,000 to create a Vermont Land Access and Opportunity Board to advise the state on how to promote home ownership for people from historically marginalized communities. An additional $20 million is aimed at helping owners fix up homes and apartments so that they can be rented and to renovate properties into accessory dwelling units.
Most of the attention Thursday, however, was on the housing provisions moved from the doomed Act 250 bill. Housing and Act 250 reform have long been linked, with environmental groups arguing that loosening development rules should be paired with tougher protections for natural areas. Several senators, however, noted that those efforts have failed year after year, and they weren’t willing to let good housing policy be held hostage by environmental protections doomed to be vetoed.
“Our committee is saying the time has come to sever that connection, and at least move forward with the housing,” Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), chair of the Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee, told his colleagues.
The measures salvaged from the bill include relaxing or streamlining a number of housing-related regulations, especially in downtowns. This includes doubling the size of priority housing projects in small towns that can be exempted from Act 250 review, to 50 units; and making properties in river corridors eligible to skirt Act 250 review.
Related Obstruction Zone: How Vermont’s Land-Use Regulations Impede New Development — and Complicate the State’s Housing Crisis
The measures would also make municipal development permits valid for two years, require cities and towns to respond to Act 250 permit applications within 90 days, provide more grants to help towns update their zoning laws, and prevent towns from requiring more than one parking space per accessory dwelling unit.
The idea of speeding up housing development by exempting more projects from Act 250 review annoyed Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor).
"There have been efforts to weaken Act 250 since it was passed, and I think it's unfortunate that we're weakening it further," McCormack said.
Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) said that while she was “heartbroken” about the fate of forest protections, she took solace knowing that the legislation passed will help more housing get built in urban areas.
“When we invest in smart-growth measures, we reduce the pressure on our backcountry,” Clarkson said.
Environmentalists were furious over what they viewed as lawmakers caving in to pressure from the governor and allowing important Act 250 governance reforms and forest protections to die.
“We’ve been held hostage to an administration that is hostile to Act 250 and hostile to basic environmental protections,” Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said. The Act 250 reform bill, S.234, had been subjected to "exaggerations and fabrications" by the administration and its apparent demise "would be terrible," he added.
A major sticking point was a proposed change to how Act 250 appeals would be heard, shifting that duty from environmental courts to professional panels. Scott invited Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger to his weekly press conference Tuesday, and the mayor, a former developer, lambasted that proposal as likely to make housing development even harder by complicating the appeals process.
While the Act 250 bill passed the Senate Thursday afternoon, lawmakers acknowledged that it was headed for a veto they had neither the will nor the time to override.
That’s partly because House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) said Wednesday her chamber would not return to try to override any of Scott’s vetoes. That effectively prevents lawmakers from holding a special veto session.
In her closing remarks, Krowinski thanked members for their determination to support residents during the pandemic, and reminded them that they did so even as democracy itself came under assault on the early days of the session when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
“Vermonters were counting on us and we needed to support them through one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history,” she said.
Scott addressed both chambers with customary remarks to close out the biennium. He reminded lawmakers that this year, the state’s coffers were uncharacteristically brimming thanks to federal pandemic assistance. The end results were major investments in housing, clean water, broadband and other priorities that would not have been possible otherwise, Scott said.
“While it was far from easy and we had a few pointed policy debates on some big issues,” he said, “I’m proud of what we achieved this session and I hope you are as well.”