UPDATED: Thank God Act 250 Wasn't Weakened
The previous version of this commentary was published in the VT Digger. See below for the updated version now that Governor Scott has vetoed H.926.
We congratulate the Vermont General Assembly for crafting an excellent bill to improve the ability of Act 250 to protect Vermont’s natural resources (H.926). The improvements include strong support for forest blocks and connecting habitats. By protecting connectivity between wildlife habitats, the health and survival of plants, animals and ecosystems are better ensured. The bill mitigates the possibility that forest blocks might be fragmented, thereby destroying the ability of Vermont’s forests to provide adequate habitat for wildlife. In addition, the final, passed version of H.926 requires that development projects “not have an undue adverse effect on the scenic or natural beauty of the area, aesthetics, historic sites or rare and irreplaceable natural areas.” This legislation also clearly states that the protection of both endangered species and the habitats supporting them are not sacrificed for the benefit of someone’s economic gain.
Act 250 created the regulatory backbone reflecting Vermont’s unique and effective approach to preserving and protecting nature and natural beauty. Arguably, any effort to weaken Act 250 is an effort to weaken what makes Vermont special. When Act 250 was created in 1970, it was a bold and innovative step forward; and today it is still the envy of conservationists across the United States and throughout the World.
However, the crafting of H.926 was not without intrigue similar to a drama in Hamlet or Macbeth. Before its first passage in the House of Delegates, while under consideration on the House floor, at the 11th hour (actually more like 11:45), an amendment was proposed to exempt development projects from Act 250 review if the project would be in a village center that has “enhanced designation.” Enhanced designation is conferred by the Vermont Downtown Development Board to municipalities that apply more standard development codes. However, these enhanced regulations pale in comparison to the requirements needed for Act 250 approval.
This amendment would have ended the application of Act 250 in village centers; and incredibly, it passed the House – probably because stressed-out Members wanted desperately to finish the work of the 2020 pandemic session. There was also tremendous pressure placed on Members by major environmental organizations that lobbied hard to pass H.926. At the time, these environmental organizations felt that weakening Act 250 in this way was OK (see https://vtdigger.org/2020/09/09/duggan-fisher-groveman-mears-urffer-supporting-act-250-modernization/). Some Delegates pushed back, saying that a change of this magnitude should first be discussed with constituents and voters (see https://vtdigger.org/2020/02/28/house-approves-act-250-reforms-after-contentious-debate/).
Fortunately, more deliberate and cautious heads in the Vermont Senate prevailed and removed the provisions exempting development projects in village centers from Act 250 review. The final version of H.926 enacted by both the Senate and the House is largely what came out of the Senate.
After H.926 was passed by the General Assembly, one of those environmental organizations that had been OK with exempting projects from Act 250 review – the Vermont Natural Resources Council – asked Gov. Scott to sign the bill anyway. However, Governor Scott ended up vetoing it.
In spite of Scott’s veto, we are very relieved and grateful that Act 250 was not weakened in any way!