Understanding Act 250 and its Significance for Vermont’s Environment & Communities
Updated December 2023
What is Act 250?
- Act 250 is an environmental review and permitting process that regulates development in Vermont by requiring a review of the largest development projects for their potential impacts on natural resources, cities and towns.
- There are ten criteria used to evaluate a project, related to issues such as air, water, transportation, and community impacts.
- Act 250 is administered by the nine regional District Commissions throughout Vermont.
Role of Act 250 in Shaping Vermont’s Landscape
- Act 250 provides a voice for Vermonters in helping shape Vermont’s most significant development projects, allowing for public review and input in the process.
- Act 250 helps prevent sprawl and minimize real estate speculation, making our state less vulnerable to economic downturns.
- Act 250 protects vital habitats, ensuring we have healthy wildlife populations in Vermont.
How does Act 250 Work Currently?
Currently, Act 250 review is triggered based on the size of a proposed project. 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)
- The subdivision of either 6 lots or more, or 10 lots or more, in a five year period depending on whether the town has permanent zoning and subdivision regulations.
What Lies Ahead
Act 250 has helped shape the Vermont we love today. But, the program is more than 50 years old and should be updated to meet all of today’s challenges, including climate change, forest fragmentation, and increasing the availability of affordable, smart growth housing. It is time to consider how Act 250 can be reformed to help address our housing crisis while simultaneously protecting our natural resources and communities. Solutions to these issues can go hand in hand.
This Legislative session, VNRC is looking forward to working with legislators, and partners such as planning commission leaders, housing developers, The Forest Partnership, climate advocates, and many more, to advance Act 250 reform that can strengthen Vermont’s environment, communities, and the overall quality of life in our state.
Core Recommendations to Modernize and Improve the Act 250 Process
|Update Jurisdiction and Criteria Based on Locations and Impacts
|Currently, the decision of whether the Act 250 process applies to a development project is not based on where the project is located, which can lead to problems like forest fragmentation, flooding, and wildlife habitat loss. We propose to consider a project’s location and update the rules accordingly. This would mean giving more deference to well-planned areas like downtowns where there is sound planning and zoning in place, while increasing the review of projects in important natural resource areas. It also means reviewing certain state programs and making sure they consider environmental factors when designating areas for development, including clearer guidelines for protecting agricultural soils and reviewing projects around highway interchanges to preserve aesthetics and state investments. The overall goal is to encourage smart growth development while ensuring appropriate scrutiny in areas where we should be protecting Vermont’s critical natural resources.
|Address Forest Fragmentation
|To address the well-documented issue of forests in Vermont being broken up by rural development without proper oversight, we aim to enhance the evaluation process outlined in Criterion 8. This involves assessing whether a project is designed to prevent or minimize the fragmentation of vital forest blocks and wildlife connectivity areas through careful site design and planning. If avoiding fragmentation isn’t possible through site design, the proposal suggests requiring mitigation similar to the approach for impacts on primary agricultural soils. The idea is to reconsider how Act 250 reviews projects in these high-priority forest resources to maintain working lands, preserve ecological functions, and the overall integrity of our forests. As part of this, we believe there should be a road rule to review the impacts of long roads and driveways that fragment forest resources.
|Ensure Planning Goals Promote Smart Growth & Minimize Community Impacts
|To encourage smart growth development and minimize negative impacts on communities, we propose integrating the original planning principles of Act 250 into the current framework. Initially, Act 250 required plans be developed outlining how different land uses should relate to each other, supporting downtowns and villages while preventing sprawl. The absence of these plans has led to piecemeal project reviews and incremental sprawl, harming farmland, forestland, and existing community centers. We believe the solution involves incorporating the state’s planning goals and smart growth principles into Act 250, reinforcing regional and municipal plans, and updating development plan maps to guide coordinated project reviews. This approach aims to provide clear guidance to applicants on where and how Vermont should grow, aligning with local and regional visions. The proposal also suggests reviewing regional plans for compliance with planning goals, involving a review body with Regional Planning Commission peers, and establishing an appeal process.
|Integrate Climate Change
|Updating Act 250 is crucial to address the urgent issue of climate change, which wasn’t initially considered when the law was created. Vermonters are already seeing firsthand how climate change is posing significant risks to public health, natural resources, and infrastructure. We propose updates aimed to guide development in a way that mitigates climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to its effects, such as more severe storms and increased climate migration to Vermont. The process involves creating a focused effort led by the Agency of Natural Resources, bringing together various stakeholders to recommend Act 250 updates related to climate change mitigation and adaptation. In the meantime, specific criteria can be revised to better respond to a warming world, including addressing greenhouse gas emissions in project reviews, supporting diverse transportation choices, preserving forest integrity, and updating energy efficiency standards. These changes are vital to make Vermont more resilient and responsive to the challenges posed by climate change in the coming years.
|Modernize Criteria Based on Science
|Updating Act 250 is essential because scientific knowledge has evolved significantly since its enactment in 1970. The criteria in Act 250, specifically those related to rivers, streams, headwaters, floodways, shorelines, and wetlands, need to be modernized to align with the latest scientific information and contemporary approaches for protecting these resources. To achieve this, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and external experts should collaborate to provide recommendations for updating these criteria. Another proposal that we have supported for many years is to update Criterion 8A by shifting the burden onto the applicant to demonstrate that a development or subdivision will not harm necessary wildlife habitat or endangered species, as opposed to the current practice where a concerned party must prove the potential harm. This adjustment acknowledges advancements in mapping and data accessibility, making it more reasonable for applicants, who have control over the property and understand the project, to shoulder the initial burden.
|Support the District Commission Process
|Supporting District Commissioners, District Coordinators, and the District Commission process is crucial because it speaks to the core intent of Act 250 – allowing local decision makers to assess projects in their region fairly while ensuring due process for community members. The increasing complexity of Act 250 projects and the growing body of case law have posed challenges for volunteer District Commissioners. To address this, Vermont should reevaluate the expectations placed on Commissioners and the resources available to them, and their supporting District Coordinators as Act 250 undergoes modernization. Proposed improvements include mandating training or expertise in Act 250-related issues for District Commissioners, providing fair compensation for their services, adequately staffing District Commissions with needed capacity, and ensuring continued openness and accessibility to the public.
|Reduce Appeal Process Burden and Improve Public Engagement
|To enhance Act 250, we propose reinstating a professional board to handle appeals and administer the law, a role that was fulfilled by the Environmental Board until its elimination in 2004. The proposal recommends establishing a 3-7 member professional board, composed of individuals with legal and other professional backgrounds, to bring diverse perspectives to Act 250 appeals. Additionally, hearing officers could handle smaller Act 250 disputes for efficiency. This approach is intended to streamline processes, reduce costs, and provide clearer guidance to District Commissions and applicants, ensuring consistency in Act 250 decisions across districts. The proposal emphasizes the importance of diverse expertise in decision-making, aligning with the original intent of Act 250’s framers who envisioned a board of Vermonters with varied backgrounds evaluating project impacts.