Community Gives Input on Future of Act 250 at Statewide Forum in SoRo
On July 25, the Legislature’s “Commission on Act 250: The Next 50 Years” held a public forum at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton.
The statute, which is approaching its 50th anniversary in 2020, is credited with preserving Vermont’s environmental beauty, but it has been criticized for hindering developers and restricting the state’s economy. The purpose of the information-gathering session was to engage Vermonters on their priorities for the future of the landscape and how to maintain the unique environment.
The public forum in South Royalton was the third of six meetings, the previous two held in Springfield on June 27 and Manchester on July 11.
The input gathered at these forums will inform the legislative commission’s report and any potential legislation to modernize the statues. By mid-December, the legislative commission, composed of three state senators and three members of the House, will issue a report on possible Act 250 reforms.
Act Guides Land Use
In the spring of 1970, the Vermont legislature passed the Land Use and Development Law, known as Act 250.
Inspired by the vision of Gov. Deane Davis to preserve and protect the environment, as well as maintain the traditional settlement patterns, the law was in response to an unregulated increase at the time in developments. It grew out of large-scale ski-related developments that were unprecedented for the state.
The law provides a public, quasijudicial process for reviewing and managing the environmental, social, and fiscal consequences of major subdivisions and developments in Vermont.
At the session in SoRo, about 70 forum participants were separated into small roundtable discussion groups where they weighed priorities on aspects of the Act 250 process from various angles.
The format was designed, organizers said, “to capture the wisdom of Vermonters.”
During the forum, tables were given factor cards with overarching aspects of the Act 250 process (economic development, scenic and natural beauty, agricultural forest productivity, ecosystem protection, and settlement patterns).
With help from a facilitator, participants weighed their priorities and ranked which ones mattered to them the most and why.
Tables were then given “disruptor cards” with factors such as climate change and infrastructure. With these in mind, they were given an opportunity to rethink their previous notions.
The final step in the roundtable discussions took up cards related to access and voice, exemptions from Act 250, permitting and appeals, and jurisdiction.
One of the rules at the forum was “ELMO,” an acronym for “Enough, Let’s Move On.” It was referred to when tables spent too long on a single point and needed to advance their discussion to the next article.
“We didn’t want an open mic because this way, people will be more attentive and participatory,” said Paul Dickin of Cope & Associates, a development, training, and consulting firm working with the commission. The format, he added, “stops one-sided conversations.”
A tabulation of survey choices expressing overall sentiment concluded the forum.
Participants had identified ecosystem protection and settlement patterns most important in evaluating
Act 250 permit applications and agricultural forest productivity a key factor.
Climate change was considered the most likely disrupting factor that will have to be weighed in reviewing permits in the future.
The two forums already held at different locations in Vermont resulted in mostly identical responses with the greatest priorities being ecosystem protection and settlement patterns.
Participants emphasized that although the factors discussed collectively stop unwanted proposals in the long-term, they acknowledged concern about their own lives and how they would be affected in the short-term.
“I’d like to see my kids come back to the state, but they just can’t afford to live here,” one attendee said.
Dave Wilcox, watershed forester of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, also voiced concern over the definitions of the factors discussed.
“When the state says, ‘working landscape,’ what do they mean by that?” Wilcox asked. “A working landscape differs from person to person. I’m a forester, so what I may think is beautiful may not be ideal for the next person. Who makes that decision?”
Additional forums are scheduled in Island Pond on August 22, Rutland on September 5, and Burlington on September 12, all set for 6 p.m.
All sessions are open to the public, no matter the region in which one resides.
While individual comments are directly gathered through a survey during these forums, they are also being accepted via email and on the website, bit.ly/2LHovCI.
“I have a vested interest as a community member and I’ve loved learning and absorbing all of the perspectives,” Dickin said. “It’s great to get out of your single viewpoint and see how different it can be.”
The feedback collected will be considered in preparing the commission’s report to the legislature.
The Act 250 legislative commission members are Rep. Amy Sheldon (D, Addison-1), the chairwoman; Sen. Chris Pearson (P/DChittenden); Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor); Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington); Rep. David Deen (D, Windham-4); and Rep. Paul Lefebvre (R-Essex-Caledonia-Orleans).
Representatives and senators from the commission are present at all forums, and reports of findings will be made available after public engagement initiatives have ended.
“The law was forward-thinking in many ways,” Sheldon said, “but today we have more information available and our experience to guide us in improving the process, both for environmental protection as well as economic vibrancy.”
-- EMILY BALLOU