Act 250 and Climate Change

The issue

When Act 250 was first created, climate change was not on people’s radar. Now, it is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, with myriad potential negative and costly impacts – to public health, natural resources, public and private investments in infrastructure, and more.

Updating Act 250 to reflect this change will help to guide development in a manner that avoids exacerbating the problem and, instead, makes our communities and people more resilient. Updates must be made to mitigate climate change (e.g., reduce the greenhouse gases that cause climate change) and to adapt to the effects of climate change (for example, how to better prepare for more frequent and severe storm events, drought, the migration of people to Vermont as coastal areas are affected by climate
change, etc.).

It is critical to ensure that this Act 250 update opportunity identifies and incorporates the best ways to respond to the reality of climate change.

Potential policy solutions

We recommend the creation of an Agency of Natural Resources-led, “Lean”-like effort to identify current tools, programs and regulatory structures intended to mitigate and adapt to climate, and opportunities go further.

Through this effort ANR should bring together diverse stakeholders to explore and make recommendations around how to update Act 250 vis-a-vis climate change. Those recommendations should focus on both mitigation and adaptation strategies.

While this process is taking place, there are updates to existing criteria that could be made in order to better respond to a warming world. These include numerous mitigation strategies, including:

Update Criterion 1: Undue Water and Air Pollution

At minimum, this criterion should specifically add greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) among the items considered in application review and the revived professional Environmental Board should be required to provide guidance on steps that applicants can take to address the impact of a project on GHG emissions.

Update Criterion 5: Transportation

Updates to this criterion should ensure that it better supports and expands transportation choices — rather than simply accommodating more single occupancy vehicles.

For example, Criterion 5A could be updated to explicitly consider the congestion and safety impacts of development on bicycle, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure in addition to highways, waterways, railways, airports and airways. This goes beyond the review of connectivity and transportation demand management in Criterion 5B.

Update Criterion 8: Integrity of Forests

To better maintain the integrity of forests, since forests play such an important role in storing and sequestering carbon.

Revise Criterion 9F from Energy Conservation to Energy Efficiency and Conservation

To build on the success Act 250 has historically had ensuring that projects are energy efficient and conserve energy, while taking into account the programs Vermont has implemented to address these issues since the Act was enacted.

Adaptation strategies

There are also adaptation strategies that could be undertaken. As noted herein, increasing protections for Vermont’s natural resources (e.g. forest and wildlife habitat); strengthening protections for Vermont’s communities and settlement patterns; and requiring ANR to recommend updates to the natural resources criteria (e.g. floodways and headwaters) will help Vermont adapt to the challenges climate change will pose over the next 50 years and beyond.