Chittenden: Beta flap shows need for flexible regs

By Sen. Thomas Chittenden

This isn’t about Beta.  It’s about regulatory barbed wire that drives investment from the state.

For those following Vermont news over the last few months, you’ve likely heard about the electric airplane manufacturer Beta that has been growing their operations at the Burlington International Airport.  This is a remarkable story of entrepreneurship, innovation, sustainability and economic opportunity.  

As a South Burlington City Councilor and a Vermont State Senator, I have been working at every turn to help them navigate regulatory hurdles and political obstacles because I, as a Vermonter, want those clean, green, tech jobs here in the state.  Nothing would make me happier than if one of my three kids got a job 10 years from now building state-of-the-art electric air craft here in the Green Mountains.

For those who have been following the story of Beta, you have likely seen coverage of their obstacles with local zoning rules in the City of South Burlington that were passed into law over the last 10 years.  Specifically, we have a parking regulation requiring parking to be behind buildings (for new development) as a smart growth strategy to calm traffic in densely populated areas and to foster a more pedestrian friendly and walkable community.  It is a good regulation being adopted by many communities in this country to steer new development and infill.  

But with every regulation, there are circumstances where the rules don’t work, don’t make sense or that make projects economically infeasible – and that is why regulations are amended, updated, warned and implemented in open public processes. An Airport, with a security fence around the airfield, can’t put parking behind their buildings (because that’s where the planes go).  

When South Burlington passed our parking ordinance, we did not contemplate the unique nature of the airport in the context of these rules.  This is not uncommon, but illustrates why it is a public process.  Had the Burlington International Airport been a more active and engaged community member in the City of South Burlington, they would have caught the issues with these regulations for the airport as they were being adopted to highlight their unique needs to advocate for exceptions.  And then I would have gotten more sleep over the last month.

Since this Beta project hit obstacles with this parking rule, the City of South Burlington has warned amended rules to address this issue and is positioned to approve them this Monday night.  These rules will apply to all future development projects, but are not retroactive.  It is because of this concern that the Governor of Vermont has been very vocal over the last two months that he wants to see a state legislative fix to this issue (if South Burlington wasn’t able to fix it) so he charged his administrative team with this issue.  For the last month or so, I have been (on top of 1000 other things) working with his administrative team on possible state legislative fixes to this issue. 

About 2 weeks ago, language was proposed by a member of the Governor’s office and I was asked to bring this language to the Senate Transportation Committee.  Before doing so, I worked with legislative counsel to understand the proposed language implications.  During that process, I reached out to the South Burlington City Manager, the City Council Chair and the director of Planning & Zoning for the City of South Burlington to hear their thoughts on different versions of language that had been drafted.  

From that feedback and from my personal experience on the South Burlington City Council, I worked to narrow this language down to be as narrow as possible to maintain local city rights over zoning of airport land while also addressing the Beta parking issue that was preventing a major manufacturing facility from putting shovels in the ground. The language I put forward strictly only exempted local laws from dictating the location of parking at municipal airports (to fix the ‘behind the building rule’).  

It, through the many conversations on this topic, did NOT eliminate local zoning laws on the amount of parking, the size of the parking, the stormwater designs of parking, the aesthetics of parking nor the traffic regulations of parking.  During the initial discussions of this language, it was initially ‘shelved’ because progress was being made at the local level to resolve this permitting issue.  That was about three weeks ago. 

Then at the last minute, the Thursday before the South Burlington Development Review Board was going to decide on the amended Beta project, the Governor’s Office and Beta team members communicated a legislative fix was still very needed.  I made clear that the only language I’d put my name to would be the narrowest language that preserves the vast majority of South Burlington’s rights while also retroactively fixing this parking issue.  

This past Monday night the South Burlington Development Review board approved a compromise solution to allow Beta to continue their buildout and it then seemed that the legislative fix was no longer needed.  That is what I thought on Tuesday.  And then on Thursday morning, Beta testified to the House Transportation committee that they in fact still needed the legislative language fix.  And representatives from the Governor’s office pressed for the same.  

So on Monday I supported the language.  Tuesday I didn’t.  And then Thursday I did again.  And then on Friday morning Beta and the City manager of South Burlington communicated that the language was no longer needed (assuming South Burlington approves the new rules this coming Monday night) so on Friday I no longer supported the language.

Because of this, a fellow South Burlington City Councilor Meaghan Emery stated the following to several news outlets “Senator Chittenden’s waffling and lack of preparation make him unfit to be a Senator. He is an embarrassment.”

I am disappointed in her approach to politics and her statements. I stand by every action I took on this matter. I was working with constantly evolving information from many different sources on a very important matter to the State of Vermont.  A matter with far reaching regional and even societal implications (these are ‘electric’ planes.)  Any ‘waffling’ I had on this issue was what I would call the legislative process on an active and evolving issue.

In public office you never make everybody happy.  And if you want to make everybody happy, don’t run for office – go sell ice cream.  But if you do run for office, I hope you have thick skin and find ways to sleep easy at night with your actions.  And most importantly, I hope anybody who serves in public office assumes the best in people and serves with humility and civility. 

To the voters of Chittenden County, I am not embarrassed of any of my actions and stand by every single one of them.

But we are not seeing the forest through the trees on this. There are many companies that don’t have Beta’s high profile nor the ear of the Governor. Those growing companies hit local and state zoning laws like this and don’t see a path forward. So they don’t invest in Vermont and take their opportunity out of state. That is the lesson of this story – we need to better consider the total cost of regulation to balance intent with impact.

The author is a Democrat senator representing Chittenden County. This op-ed was republished from a Facebook post.

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