H.233

The Forest Integrity Bill (H.233), as passed by the House, provides a critical opportunity to update Act 250 – Vermont’s land use law – to address forest fragmentation and better maintain intact, healthy forests.

 

Current Problem:

Vermont’s forests are being fragmented by rural sprawl. The breaking up of large parcels of land into smaller and smaller parcels is a significant economic and conservation problem in Vermont. Our forests provide billions in revenue to the state, but as they become more fragmented, they lose their ability to maintain water quality, provide recreational opportunities, provide habitat for wildlife, and support our rural working landscape.

  • A recent Forest Service report says that Vermont may have lost up to 75,000 acres of forestland from 2007 to 2013 due to conversion from development.
  • Another set of data from the Forest Service demonstrates that we lost five percent of forests over 100 acres in size between 2001 and 2006 and the trend continues.

 

Act 250 Does Not Protect Forests:

Based on the testimony of land use experts, and according to multiple research and legislative reports going back more than ten years, the existing Act 250 criteria related to forests fail to protect our forests. Existing criteria do not adequately address impacts to forests from subdivision, nor do they address the issue of forest fragmentation, or how to maintain the overall integrity of forests and the full suite of ecological and economic benefits that forests provide. The overwhelming number of legislative fixes to Act 250 over the past decade have involved decreasing jurisdiction to accommodate housing development, including a recent bill to accommodate priority housing. H.233 would offer a complimentary approach to updating Act 250 to better maintain important rural natural resources.

 

What the Bill Does: As passed by the Vermont House.

  • The bill would add new criteria to Act 250 under Criterion 8 to require large development projects that are already going through Act 250 to either avoid or minimize the fragmentation of interior forest blocks (as mapped by the ANR 2016 dataset) and habitat connectivity areas.
  • Mitigation would be allowed if it is not feasible to minimize fragmentation through proactive site design (the bill outlines several steps for encouraging proactive design).
  • The Natural Resources Board would develop rules to implement the mitigation in coordination with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation.
  • Like they do for other criteria, the Natural Resources Board and Agency of Natural Resources would develop guidance outlining how subdivision projects and other types of development could minimize fragmentation to comply with the criteria.
  • This is the same type of conservation model we currently use for wetlands protection: Avoid. Minimize. Mitigate.

 

What the Bill Does Not Do:

  • It does not increase the scope of areas that trigger Act 250 review. The new criteria will only apply to projects that are already required to go through the Act 250 review process.
  • It does not prohibit development in forest blocks or connectivity areas. It requires proactive site design to avoid or minimize fragmentation impacts, and if that is not feasible, mitigate impacts.
  • It does not prohibit forestry, logging (below 2,500 feet), or agriculture. These activities remain exempt from Act 250. One of the bill’s purposes is to maintain viable working forests.
  • It does not prohibit trail development. Most recreational trails would be exempt from the fragmentation criteria if they are not paved, and used for recreational purposes including hiking, walking, bicycling, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, all-terrain vehicle riding, and horseback riding.

Click here to learn more about VNRC’s Forest and Habitat Fragmentation work.