Act 250: The Next 50 Years

Act 250 – What’s Next?

What is Act 250, and why is it so important for Vermont? 

How do we want and need Act 250 to serve Vermont’s people and communities in the years ahead?

Credit: Kim Greenwood

Historic downtowns, stunning views, and active working lands are quintessentially Vermont. So, too, is Act 250, the legislation that has guided development in the state since 1970, with the goals of safeguarding our farms and forests from sprawl, protecting our natural resources, and helping our towns balance growth with community health and safety.

In 2017, the Vermont Legislature established the Commission on Act 250: The Next 50 Years to examine how to improve Act 250 as the venerable program approaches 50 years old. Outreach is now underway, as the Commission holds a series of public forums across Vermont this summer. Now is our chance, as people who care about Vermont’s future, to evaluate what the legislation has accomplished so far, while exploring opportunities to improve on it for future generations.

Below, learn more about the importance of Act 250 for our state’s lands and communities, and how you can get involved and help shape the future of this policy.

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Vermont’s Next 50 Years

Our Vision
VNRC envisions a Vermont where our forests, waterways, and wildlife habitats are protected, our water and air are kept clean, our working lands are used sustainably, and our environment is resilient against climate change. We envision forests and farmland staying intact, and traditional downtowns and villages kept vibrant, by limiting scattered development and encouraging compact, well-planned growth. We see increased transportation options that make towns more livable, workable, and affordable for all incomes and ages, while helping us meet our clean energy goals.

Our wish list items have something in common: We can make progress on all with the continued improvement and evolution of Act 250. Along with Vermont’s local planning and development review, state investment, and other policies, Act 250 plays a key role in shaping development in Vermont. By using it to ensure smart, thoughtful development, Act 250 can help Vermont use less energy and get closer to reaching our climate goals; keep natural resources and working lands viable; and make it easier for people to prosper throughout the state. 

Here are just some of the reasons why VNRC continues to fight for an enduring, improved, and modernized Act 250. In part, we believe it’s crucial to make changes to ensure that:

  • Act 250 continues to hold high standards for development in order to protect agricultural lands and keep forest blocks intact, ensuring the livelihood of working farms and the safeguarding of natural resources
    • Act 250 continues to help enrich downtowns and villages and reduce sprawl by promoting compact development while discouraging scattered, incremental development
      • Act 250 regulates new development in a way that reduces energy use and helps make Vermont more resilient against climate change
        • Act 250 adopts an improved appeals process that is more efficient, more affordable, and more accessible to affected members of the public
          • Act 250 provides more capacity, training, and resources to District Commissioners in order to improve the review process for the 21st century
            • Act 250 continues, above all, to serve a key role in shaping development in Vermont, along with local planning and development review, state investment, and other policies

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            About Act 250

            What is Act 250?
            Act 250 is an environmental review and permitting process that regulates development in Vermont, by reviewing larger scale projects for their potential impacts on the surrounding area. There are ten criteria, and several sub-criteria, used to evaluate a project, related to issues such as water, transportation, and conformance with local and regional plans.

            An Act 250 permit is required for certain kinds of development and subdivision activity — such as commercial projects on more than 10 acres (if the town has permanent zoning and subdivision regulations) or on more than one acre (if it does not) or the subdivision of 10 residential lots or dwellings, or more in a five-year period. District Commissions, made up of public board members, review Act 250 applications. Find more specifications like these from the Natural Resources Board (NRB), which is responsible for administering Act 250.

            What has Act 250 accomplished?
            There are many ways the Vermont you know and love today has been shaped by Act 250. Here are just a few:

            • Wonder why Vermont has managed to limit big-box sprawl? Act 250 has played a major role.
            • Along with other state policies, Act 250 has helped minimize real estate speculation in Vermont, making our state less vulnerable to economic downturns.
            • Act 250’s review of impacts to agricultural land has helped keep more of this important, finite resource from being permanently lost to development.
            • Act 250 has protected vital wildlife habitat, such as bear habitat and deer wintering areas, helping to ensure that we have healthy wildlife populations in Vermont.
            • Act 250 has played a vital role in ensuring developments address impacts on rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and floodways.
            • Act 250 has provided a voice for Vermonters in helping shape significant projects that include major ski area expansion, quarrying, major housing developments, and industrial development.

            Why is Act 250 particularly relevant today?
            Elizabeth Courtney, VNRC’s former executive director, said it best in a recent op-ed about the future of Act 250 in VTDigger: “Advances in technology and changes in our climate offer us bright opportunities and serious challenges that were not on our radar screen 50 years ago.”

            Not only were we not grappling with climate change in 1970 as we are now; the Internet has allowed us to live further than ever from town centers, and still partake in commerce and feel “connected,” meaning Vermont might face yet higher rates of rural parcelization and fragmentation – not to mention increased service costs –  in coming years if we’re not careful.

            From sprawl, to water quality, to energy use, Act 250 in its current state, despite its many strengths, is not equipped to meet all of today’s challenges. Now is our chance to shape how the Act can better serve Vermont in the next 50 years. 

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            Get Involved

            Attend a public forum
            Since Act 250 plays a key role in keeping Vermont, Vermont, diverse perspectives from around the state are welcome as we shape the future of this landmark legislation.

            The Commission on Act 250: The Next 50 Years is holding a series of public forums to engage Vermonters on their priorities for the future of our landscape and how to maintain Vermont’s environment and sense of place. Representatives and/or Senators from the Commission will be present at all forums, and feedback received will then be considered in preparing the Commission’s report and any recommended legislation.

            This will not be a town hall type of environment, with open comment periods, but rather an opportunity for facilitated, structured conversation meant to generate a rich exchange of knowledge and ideas about Act 250 and how it can support Vermont’s environment and communities for the next 50 years.

            Your input is important! We hope you’ll join us at a public forum this summer in a location that works for you. Forums are being held in Manchester (7/11), South Royalton (7/25), Island Pond (8/22), Rutland (9/5), and Burlington (9/10). Find the schedule here and keep up with the meeting locations on the Commission’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Act250Next50/.

            Want more information?
            With any questions about Act 250 or how you can get involved in planning for the legislation’s next 50 years, please contact Kate McCarthy, Sustainable Communities Program Director at VNRC, at kmccarthy@vnrc.org or (802) 223-2328, x114.