Courier Q&A: Land Use? (Act 250)

QUESTION: Updating Vermont's land use law, better known as Act 250, has become a perennial topic in Vermont politics. What changes would you like to see to that law (if any), and what would you do to ensure those changes are enacted?

Randy's Answer:

Act 250 is a comprehensive land use law that evaluates the impact of development of certain commercial projects under ten criteria.  The original act was championed and signed into law in 1969 by Republican Governor Deane Davis, in response to widespread concerns about uncontrolled, poorly-designed and environmentally harmful developments that were beginning to sprout up in several towns.  Today, this type of review process in deeply embedded in Vermont. 

But as with every law, with the passage of time, it is useful to evaluate what is working and what is not.  On the positive side, Vermont has remained one of the most beautiful and environmentally attractive places in the nation.  On the negative side, the application of Act 250 has become increasingly bureaucratic, costly and time-consuming.  Some describe Act 250 as a full-employment act for engineers and lawyers.  Others note the increasing embedded regulatory costs in every development, commercial or residential.  In addition to significant application fees, the time and cost of preparing for and going through the process adds to the total cost of the end product.  Some argue that Act 250 and related municipal permitting costs add as much as 30% to the cost of construction of some residential properties, thus adding to the critical shortage and high cost of housing in Vermont.

I sponsored several unsuccessful changes to Act 250 legislation in our most recent session.  These proposals would have addressed several recurring problems: reducing the time needed to obtain permits, eliminating some of the bureaucratic duplication between municipal and state reviews, and providing applicants more certainty and faster resolution of what is now a lengthy appeals process.  And although the vast majority of Act 250 permits are approved and granted quickly, the approval process statistics do not account for the significant amount of preparation and outside consulting expertise required for that to happen.

We need improvements to Act 250 that speed up the process by limiting frivolous appeals, reduce the time required for appeals to be resolved (now averaging almost a year).  We need to consolidate the duplicative and costly municipal and state permitting processes into a single stream.  We must modernize the review process under a professional full-time board to further reduce the time delays inherent with part-time, non-professional unelected bodies.  We should hold state agencies accountable for processing permits in a timely manner and we should consider whether additional resources as well as timeliness mandates should be imposed to require appeals to be dealt with timely.  We should also further identify opportunities to exempt from Act 250 additional instances where requirement are sufficiently met under properly defined local zoning standards.

We should conduct a vigorous review the ten Act 250 criteria to better define how each must be met.  By removing subjectivity to the greatest extent possible, those charged with approving or denying applications will be better able to do so quickly and consistently.  The goal is to evaluate significant development projects more quickly, more consistently and at lower cost, while still maintaining the environmental oversight that most Vermonters agree is essential to protect our state and its natural beauty.