The Vested Rights Doctrine

OVERVIEW

Local land use plans and regulations are subject to continuing change. The vested rights doctrine consists of legal rules typically invoked by a developer to allow a project to be completed in accordance with the land use plan and regulations in effect when the project was proposed or approved. At the same time, in applying those rules courts and regulatory agencies seek to balance developers’ interests in certainty with the interests of municipalities in adapting their land use plans and regulations to accommodate changing conditions in their communities. The doctrine is of particular importance in lengthy, multi-phase projects over the course of which local land use laws are more likely to change.

Rules for the vested rights doctrine are found both in the common law reflected in decisions of the Vermont Supreme Court and in statutes enacted by the legislature.  The rules apply both to local land use proceedings under the Vermont Planning and Development Act, 24 V.S.A., chapter 117, and to consideration of municipal land use plans and regulations under Criterion 10 of Act 250, the State Land Use and Development Act, 10 V.S.A. § 6086(a)(10). In order to better understand this topic, we have divided the information into the following:

The Vermont Approach –  “Early Vesting” – This section provides a summary of early vesting – the approach that Vermont takes and how this differs from the late vesting approach of other states.

The Vermont Approach in Action – This section outlines how the Vermont Supreme Court has applied the vested rights doctrine.  This section is best understood through a consideration of the doctrine at different stages in the land use permitting process and in differing circumstances where the relative weights of developer and municipal interests may vary.

Vested Rights in Practice – This section provides suggestions on how to establish or resist a claim of vested rights.

Summary of Vermont Supreme Court Decisions –  This section summarizes leading Vermont Supreme Court decisions on the vested rights doctrine.

Resources – This section provides a list of further resources that provide more detailed information on this topic.