Senate committee not excited about Act 250

Due to virtual format and lack of time, in-depth review of revision of 50-year-old land use law seems unlikely

By Guy Page

May 19, 2020 – During a May 13 meeting, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee showed little enthusiasm for conducting a thorough review of the Act 250 revision approved by the House earlier this year. Lack of time and the inadequacy of virtual format for in-depth discussion and debate were cited as reasons.

The revision of Vermont’s landmark land use and planning law has been several years in the making. If not passed by the Senate this year, it would likely be resurrected as a new House bill next year.

At the May 13 meeting recorded on YouTube, Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) broached the issue of taking up two complex, important environmental bills sent over to the Senate from the House earlier this year.

“There’s an Act 250 bill and the Global Warming Solutions Act – so, we’re not cut loose to starting working on those things,” Bray told the committee. However, some measures in the Act 250 bill – especially those involving municipal planning and housing – could be addressed in other legislation, he said. 

“The whole Act 250 thing, it’s a huge issue that a lot of people want to take part in and weigh in on and I don’t see it happening through this [online] format,” Sen. John Rodgers (D – Essex/Orleans) said. 

“Your point’s well-taken,” Chair Bray told Rodgers. “Actually we distributed your memo to the committee and prior to talking about it….. we were all on the same page.”

At that moment, real life in the Zoom era intervened to underscore Rodgers’ point. As the committee conversed, committee guest and Natural Resources Board Chair Diane Snelling suddenly could be heard having another phone conversation. She was obviously unaware that everyone on the call could hear her. The effect was chaotic.

“And there’s a prime example of why Act 250 shouldn’t be done on Zoom, right there,” Rodgers observed with a laugh. 

Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) suggested the committee push a few parts of the comprehensive Act 250 revision: forest fragmentation, forest trails, and downtown development, “if we’re going to look at Act 250 at all.”

“I would almost see if there’s anything we can do to build for next year, not anything necessarily that passes and changes the law,” Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin) said. “My worry is with the House, they took so long to get us a bill that I will have to go through this again next biennium.”

Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), the only other senator present, offered no opinion. The committee took no vote. It’s still possible Senate Natural could go into a full-throated review and sent Act 250 to the Senate floor. As Bray noted,” it’s still not crystal clear what our schedule is going to be.” However, based on comments at this meeting, Act 250 revision supporters soon may be sounding like the Brooklyn Dodger fans of old: “wait ‘till next year.”