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Middlebury Spotlight

New Law Strengthens Downtowns, Assures Consideration of Natural Resources

Gov. Peter Shumlin recently signed H.337, a measure to improve the state’s Downtown, Village Center, and Neighborhood Designation programs, as well as to reduce the cost of developing new housing in and around designated villages and downtowns.

“This legislation is the result of a lot of hard work from a diverse group of stakeholders who want to give cities, towns, and developers more tools to revitalize commercial districts and help create beautiful, safe, and affordable neighborhoods around them,” said Noelle MacKay, Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

VNRC supported the bill, and worked very hard with lawmakers to assure it contained provisions assuring protections for important natural resources, including things like prime agricultural soils.

“We’re excited that this bill promotes the vitality of our downtowns and villages, by adding housing, while at the same time ensuring that a good planning process is used to protect important natural resources,” says Kate McCarthy, VNRC Sustainable Communities Program Director.

“There’s a lot we want to accomplish with our land in Vermont, including flood protection, food production, carbon sequestration, economic development, climate change adaptation, and more,” McCarthy said. “While these are tough conversations, good planning is one way to ensure that we thoughtfully and deliberately balance the needs of our communities and our environments as we work together to make tough choices.”

The new law designates areas appropriate for neighborhood development based on their connection to a village or downtown, with special emphasis on walkability. The law makes certain benefits available to communities that are “development ready.”

Those benefits include Act 250 exceptions for mixed-income housing projects of a certain size; reduced state wastewater fees, and Act 250 fees if applicable; dedicated technical assistance and priority consideration for state grants; and help for rehabilitation and reinvestment of blighted properties by allowing communities to forgo local taxes on the value of new building improvements.

The new law also clarifies the goals and definitions of the existing Downtown and Village Center designation programs, provides additional technical assistance, and links revitalization to local planning. The law also requires the Department of Housing and Community Development to review, with the help of a variety of stakeholders, the growth center and new town center designation programs. As part of that review, the department will look at industrial parks, rural development and the protection of natural resources. The department is to bring recommendations to improve the programs to the Legislature by Dec. 15.

Read the text of H.377