Commentary

Martin: Act 250 stifles Vermont economy

by Charles Martin

While recent news of the cancellation of Montpelier’s hotel project is troubling, those familiar with Act 250 are not surprised. The decision to terminate the project is yet another example of how truly broken our state’s principal land use law is. Montpelier’s current problem is high-profile and outrageous, but don’t mistake it as an outlier. It is representative of what hundreds of permit seekers have gone through and will continue to experience if this law is not updated.

To recap, the recently nixed Capitol Plaza project was approved by an Act 250 panel, the Development Review Board, the Design Review Board, and Montpelier voters. The City has invested more than $1 million in the project that will now be paid back in property taxes instead of parking garage revenues, as was originally planned. The Bashara family, owners of the Capitol Plaza, will forfeit over $1 million because of legal fees related to an endless appeals process and the project’s subsequent cancellation.

“We are fortunate to live in the most beautiful state in the nation, and Act 250 deserves considerable credit for helping Vermont maintain this status. However, I doubt the creators of Act 250 were concerned with disrupting the natural beauty of a parking lot wedged between a railroad track and another parking lot (this is an accurate site description of the project in question), alongside another hotel in the center of our densely populated capital city.” – Charles Martin

Montpelier loses 50-60 construction jobs, 30-50 hotel jobs, and the State of Vermont loses an estimated $300,000 in annual rooms and meals tax revenue. Perhaps most upsetting in the wake of an economically devastating pandemic, Montpelier and nearby businesses will not experience the widely anticipated increase in hotel guests that the new venue was expected to generate for local shops and restaurants.

Even after formal support by several elected oversight bodies and a direct vote by Montpelier residents to approve the project, a small group was able to derail the project. Providing power to individuals to advocate for their interests is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy, however, the Act 250 appeals process has evolved into a costly and reliable dilatory tactic often used by groups unwilling to accept development proposals that otherwise have broad community support.

We are fortunate to live in the most beautiful state in the nation, and Act 250 deserves considerable credit for helping Vermont maintain this status. However, I doubt the creators of Act 250 were concerned with disrupting the natural beauty of a parking lot wedged between a railroad track and another parking lot (this is an accurate site description of the project in question), alongside another hotel in the center of our densely populated capital city. Even more upsetting is the now-obsolete parking garage proposal was intended to address Montpelier’s parking scarcity. The project’s termination means vehicles will continue making laps around town searching for limited parking spots and adding to local air pollution.

The outdated nature of Act 250 should concern all Vermonters, not only the Montpelier residents recently harmed by this project’s cancellation. Our youth are fleeing the state to seek opportunity elsewhere. We can continue to debate why, or we can address some of the obvious contributors to the exodus. Act 250 in its current form is a direct contributor to the economic stagnation facing many of our communities. This stagnation amplifies the disenfranchisement of young people who are leaving in search of opportunity elsewhere. Left unchanged, we can count on Act 250 to continue blocking modest economic development proposals around the state that may have otherwise provided incentive for our children and young families to remain local and thrive in place.

In 2017, the Legislature created The Commission on Act 250: The Next 50 Years. The bipartisan commission’s purpose was to assess Act 250 and make recommendations for changes to equitably modernize the law. The Commission’s final 79-page report(link is external) included dozens of recommendations to bring Act 250 into the 21st century. To date, the State House has implemented no substantive reforms.

Members of the House and Senate have the power to reform this law to satisfy environmental concerns while also permitting our communities to invest in themselves. Vermont’s designated downtowns and growth centers are well positioned to accommodate new economic opportunities, and modest changes in law could make development in these areas more realistic, while also decreasing sprawl on the periphery of municipal areas. The Legislature is now in its third year of listening to redundant testimony from a diverse group of stakeholders who have explicitly detailed recommendations for modifying the components of Act 250 responsible for egregious outcomes like those in Montpelier. A lack of action guarantees this scenario will repeat elsewhere, with Vermonters who depend on main streets left to suffer from the fallout of recurring instances of wasted opportunity.

The author is the government affairs director of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Categories: Commentary

4 replies »

  1. It’s the same old, same old story going on in Vermont. When every permits been met, millions of dollars spent, we see over and over projects getting killed over the objections of a few who had every opportunity to be part of the process through out but chose not to but yet are still able to have an impact. Why anyone would ever feel welcomed in this state to invest any money is beyond me. Someone should have a reasonable expectation that if they met the standards by being awarded the permits, which is no easy task, they should be able to see the fruits of their investments by being able to complete their project which just doesn’t benefit them but Vermonters through jobs and tax collections.

  2. This Act 250 thing turned into a nightmare when it was first implemented.
    This is NOT NEW! “500 Condos on every hilside” Horrors upon horrors
    were coming if we didn’t stop them. So we stopped – almost everything.

    Good projects never start – because Act 250 bankrupts the builder before getting the darned permits – many permits – costly permits.

    Perfect or perish describes the goal, the motive and the result.

    Nothing new! Citizens for Property Rights, CPR, Property owners tanding together,POST, and Chuck Thomas himself, wore themselves into the ground.

    Little except Gov’t monoliths ever get built. Witness City center gravel pit in Burlington – 10 – 20- years. It finally got going and was promptly sued out of business by single issue “blockers” and their law firms.

    Facilities and Jobs be Damned in Vermont !!

  3. act 250 was a mistake from day one, it has cost vermont billions of dollars In jobs . when a company looks at the red tape they face in vermont? they go to new hampshire!

  4. Of course it was a mistake from the beginning – that was the plan though – there is always a plan and somehow those plans keep rolling out and rolling over the good, the right and the just! How much longer will the few keep getting away with any of it? Oh how asleep so many are…

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