Brattleboro Reformer Editorial: ‘Fixing’ Act 250

Brattleboro Reformer Editorial: ‘Fixing’ Act 250

Brattleboro Reformer
January 6, 2009 Editorial

‘Fixing’ Act 250

It’s almost as predictable as the sun coming up in the east. Every year, Vermont Gov. James Douglas says Act 250 needs to be streamlined. And every year, lawmakers have to beat back Douglas’ attempts to chip away at the state’s landmark land use law. Douglas claims it takes an average of 278 days for a company to receive a permit. Those numbers, however, aren’t entirely accurate. According to the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the state’s own data show that two-thirds of all applicants get their permits within 60 days. Perhaps if you factor in some of the more contentious cases over the past decade, such as the ongoing fight in St. Albans over a proposed Super Wal-Mart, you might get Douglas’ figure.

Of course, if you’re trying to make the case that the system is broken and the Act 250 permit process is slow, unpredictable and burdensome to businesses, you’d be more likely to use Douglas’ numbers than the VNRC’s.

And now the governor has a new reason for permit reform — economic stimulus. He formed a task force consisting of Natural Resources Board chairman Peter Young, Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn and Environmental Conservation commissioner Laura Pelosi to gather ideas.

Some of the proposals look familiar, such as making water or air quality permits issued by the Agency of Natural Resources carry more weight in Act 250 hearings. Critics say, however, that ANR doesn’t always follow its own guidelines for issuing the permits, or that the agency sometimes contradicts or ignores scientific evidence. And the state Environmental Court and the district commissions already frequently defer to the ANR’s judgments.

Another idea is to change the appeal process. Currently, a permit appealed to the courts receives a complete review, or what amounts to a new hearing. Instead, the administration wants to treat Act 250 appeals similar to the way appeals are now made to the Vermont Supreme Court — where an appeal would review the quality of the evidence and the procedure used to grant the permit, instead of reviewing the whole case from the beginning. This system, known as an “on the record” review, would reduce having cases tried twice.

Right now, the Act 250 process is already fairly formalized and legally structured, a result of the last major overhaul to the law in 2004. Applicants know what to expect, and as a result, nearly every permit is approved. It seems to us that the permit reform ideas have less to do with economic stimulus and more to do with limiting citizen participation and making it more difficult to raise objections to proposed projects.

The current system works, and we are skeptical that the proposed changes will make much of a difference to the state’s economic health. So why is the Douglas administration again pushing for changes to Act 250? Is it because developers haven’t been able to build the big box stores in Vermont that litter the landscape in the other 49 states? The suburban sprawl that is now in foreclosure in so many places has been kept to a minimum, thanks to Act 250. Many Vermonters see this as a good thing, and we think the people who claim that Act 250 harms the state’s economy are barking up the wrong tree.

What Act 250 has done since it was enacted in 1970 is to set a reasonable set of guidelines for developers and business owners to meet. It has kept much of Vermont from looking like the sprawled-over mess that’s seen in too many places in America. That, in turn, bolsters Vermont’s economy, by attracting businesses and entrepreneurs who want to come here for our quality of life.

Any attempt to change Act 250 should be looked at with skepticism, particularly given the environmental record and pro-business tilt of the Douglas administration. For the administration to use the current economic downturn to sneak through changes to Act 250 is shameless, and lawmakers need to hold the governor accountable.

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