Our Work

COMMENTARY: Beware of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

By Elizabeth Courtney

January 26, 2009

In an editorial I wrote recently, I cautioned about the temptation we have in economic hard times to make shortsighted policy decisions that risk sacrificing our core values over the long haul:

 “The economic realities we face are very troubling. Yet this is precisely the moment when we need to stay focused on our conservation ethic for the long haul and not give into the temptation to find short term fixes that divert us from the core values … As responsible citizens, we need to pay attention to what is afoot in Montpelier, permit reform set on weakening Act 250 …”

And sure enough, less than three weeks later – on January 8, 2009 – in his fourth inaugural address, Governor Douglas outlined his proposal to stop what he calls a “culture of ‘No’” in (environmental) permitting.

A culture of “No?” Do the facts stack up to a culture of “No?”

The figures compiled by the administration’s very own Natural Resources Board would suggest otherwise: Of the 428 Act 250 permits sought in 2007, four were denied. Four. That’s less than one percent. Sixty five percent of permits were issued within 60 days and fewer than two percent were appealed to environmental court. And let us not forget that only 40 percent of development in Vermont is reviewed under Act 250 anyway.

I’d say we have a culture of “Yes” in Vermont’s environmental permitting. To echo Tom Hanks scolding his beleaguered team in “A League of Her Own,” “There is no crying in baseball.”  I think the facts show that “there is no denying in Vermont.”

If there is a “No” in permitting, I would hold that it is merely the self-fulfilling negative prophecy of Governor Jim Douglas himself, that business owners are turned away by a so-called “labyrinth” of permitting in Vermont. But even this myth has been proven to be false. A few years ago the administration’s very own Agency of Natural Resources surveyed hundreds of consultants and developers who had recently gone through the permitting process. The study found a whopping 75 percent of respondents said the time it took to go through the process was not problematic. Seventy one percent felt that the regulations were reasonable.

So what is going on here? What does this administration want?

In his first inaugural speech, Douglas said:

We began construction of this new, more secure, economic framework by first articulating our economic development ethics – values that guide all levels of our policymaking. We rejected the notion that jobs come at the expense of the environment, and that environmental protection must be compromised to have economic progress, stating without equivocation that we must have both. This third way – the Vermont way – is committed to both our environment and our economy.

Douglas has said in the past that the choice between jobs and the environment is a false choice, and that really it is a choice “between both or neither.”

Sounds good.

But Douglas’ administration pushed through Act 250 changes in 2005 that made the process more legalistic (and costly) and left a very expensive yet ineffective ghost of an environmental board to oversee Act 250.  Now the administration is trotting out a permit reform proposal that will have the effect of undercutting the protection of our natural resources and cutting out neighbors’ participation in development projects. He says these changes are necessary to “get our economy moving again.”

Moving where? Towards the big-box sprawl that is bankrupting so many other states in the nation? Tom Candon, the state’s chief banking regulator interviewed in 2008 on VPR said Act 250 “gets some of the credit” (for the fact that Vermont hasn’t suffered the financial woes to the extent of many other states) “because it appears to have slowed the growth of speculative building projects.”

It sounds like the Douglas administration has rejected not only Vermonters’ long history of stewardship, but its own “Third Way.” The administration appears to be slipping backwards, dusting off old, already-rejected ideas, in a desperate attempt to appear to be doing something – anything – to help the economy.

We would be kidding ourselves if we thought that stripping away regulations in this tiny corner of the world will help lift Vermonters out of the big, broad downturn we are in. We are all too painfully aware of what relaxing regulations meant to Wall Street, Main Street and our pocketbooks. Indeed, without a strong, clear regulatory framework, grounded in a solid conservation ethic, we could be losing much more.