A state-appointed commission is winding up 18 months of work reviewing the successes, the failures and the future of Act 250, the state’s landmark development review law.
The law says major developments must be reviewed under 10 environmental criteria, including the project’s impact on air quality, traffic, water and municipal services. The review takes place at the regional level, with nine district commissions whose citizen members are appointed by the governor.
The six-member panel has heard from developers, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, environmentalists and staff members from state agencies who frequently deal with Act 250. Now the commission members are drafting a report for the Legislature.
Middlebury Rep. Amy Sheldon, who chairs the commission, said the group has found strong support for the law and its goals.
“There’s still a deep commitment in Vermont, in fact an increased commitment, to the protection of traditional settlement patterns which means compact village centers surrounded by open working lands,” she said.
Sheldon said one huge difference between and now and 1970 – when Republican Gov. Deane Davis pushed for the law as a way to control unchecked resort development – is that the state and towns now have passed local zoning and environmental laws.
“And so one of the things we’re looking at now is how to integrate into the Act 250 process – which is very much supported by Vermonters today still – the role of new information and new permitting structures,” she said.
Sheldon said the law was ahead of its time in terms of allowing citizen engagement and its focus on combating sprawl. She said it also helped curb speculative real estate development.
“We’ve had steady, positive economic growth since 1970. It may not be as fast as some people want,” Sheldon said. “But one of the things that Act 250 is credited with is keeping us more steady, and we avoid the boom-and-bust cycle that other states fall prey to.”
Brian Shupe, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, is one of the advisers to the commission. He said a major charge for the commission is to assess the law’s success and to see if it is meeting today’s environmental challenges.
For example, climate change was not seen as a major issue for the state in the 1970s.
“Now it’s the central challenge of the day, and is Act 250 doing all it can to help Vermonters prepare for a changing climate, and to mitigate those challenges over time?” Shupe said. “So we’re glad this is happening; we’re glad to be a part of it. And I’ve been a little surprised that there is probably more common ground than I thought there might be going into it.”
Shupe said a common misconception about Act 250 is that it regulates most development in Vermont. While many projects are covered by state and local permits, Act 250 actually touches relatively few and the vast majority of them win their permits, he said.
Act 250 sometimes gets blamed for thwarting housing developments, yet it’s more often local permits that are the obstacle, Shupe said.
“We have documented that Act 250 seems to only apply to about 3 or 4 percent of the residential development in the state,” he said. “And when I’ve talked to real estate developers — and I have quite a bit over the years — a lot of the time the frustration is with local zoning and that process.”