Committee to Study Act 250 and Rural Sprawl
August 14, 2008
VNRC will be participating in a study that will hopefully result in recommended changes to key Act 250 criteria to better manage rural sprawl and protect the economic vitality of Vermont’s downtowns. The charge of the committee, as set forth in the so-called “housing bill” (H.863) that went into effect this year, includes the following:
Study Act 250 (10 V.S.A. § 6086) criterion 5, relating to traffic, criterion 9(H), relating to scattered development, criterion 9(L), relating to rural development, and other criteria identified by the committee, to determine the effectiveness of those criteria to promote compact settlement patterns, prevent sprawl, and protect important natural resources, and to make recommendations to improve the effectiveness of those criteria in preserving the economic vitality of Vermont’s existing settlements and preventing sprawl development.
This study, while needed and long overdue, is the result of an unfortunate compromise made in the Vermont Senate. After the House in 2007 appropriately rejected Governor Douglas’s “new neighborhoods” program —which would have exempted most residential development from Act 250 review –VNRC worked with several partner organizations, including Champlain Housing Trust, Conservation Law Foundation, Housing Vermont, Smart Growth Vermont and the Vermont Land Trust, to identify a balanced alternative to the Governor’s proposal.
The groups agreed that support for housing legislation should be based on two principles: (1) that any exemptions from state (Act 250) review of housing developments would be limited to smart growth locations in communities that have demonstrated an ability to plan for and manage development in a responsible manner, and (2) that eliminating regulatory oversight in smart growth locations should be balanced with corrections to those Act 250 criteria that have been ineffective in preventing rampant strip development along the state’s highways and poorly designed residential subdivisions that devour farmland.
The Vermont House passed just such a bill, with the support of VNRC and key business groups. It included strategic changes to criterion 9L that would have prevented strip development from extending into undeveloped highway corridors and required rural subdivisions to be clustered or otherwise designed to conserve open space – land use policies that many responsible Vermont communities have employed for years. This small improvement was widely and loudly mischaracterized by opponents, including the Douglas administration, and was subsequently eliminated by Senate leadership without an opportunity to hear testimony on the changes. As an alternative, the Senate agreed to form a study committee to explore how Act 250 can better address these important land use issues, which was included in the final bill. Through its participation, VNRC will continue advocating for changes that protect the state’s working landscape and natural resources.