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Act 250 Revision: One Small Step

by C.B. Hall
A substantial revision of Vermont’s 1970 environmental law, Act 250, is headed to Governor Peter Shumlin’s desk after final passage in the legislature on May 5. The reform measure, House bill 823, cleared that chamber on a 92-44 vote on March 13, but was amended in the Senate, which finally passed it on May 1 on a voice vote. The House concurred with the Senate changes on a voice vote four days later, removing the need for a Senate-House conference in the rushed final days of the legislative session. Shumlin is expected to sign the bill.
The legislation adds a provision to Act 250 discouraging strip development, with the intent of shifting the focus of future development from lower- to higher-density areas. The bill defines strip development as “linear commercial development” that meets at least three of seven criteria, including “lack of connection to any existing settlement except by highway . . . lack of coordination with surrounding land uses and limited accessibility for pedestrians.”
The bill deletes an Act 250 definition of so-called rural growth areas, substituting language that emphasizes historic patterns of settlement. The effect is to force development outside of cities and villages to use land efficiently, rather than sprawling across the landscape. The measure will move Vermont a tiny step closer to the long-standing pattern of development in many European countries, where villages are clearly bounded geographic entities, with nothing but farmland and forests in between them.
The law will expedite review of projects in the state’s 24 “designated downtowns,” ease requirements for Act 250 review of housing projects and incorporate language that promotes walking, bicycling and transit.
“Some feared that this [bill] was prohibiting development,” said Representative Rebecca Ellis (D-Waterbury), who carried the bill on the House floor and addressed the concerns of development interests who opposed the measure. “That was a misunderstanding. This promotes smart growth while allowing development to occur.”
Six of Washington County’s 15 House members—a higher proportion than in the chamber as a whole—voted against the bill. The six included Adam Greshin (I-Warren) who stated in an email interview, “I was happy with the part of the legislation that encouraged development in our downtowns and village centers. But I was less comfortable with the new definition of strip development that, when read carefully, will make it virtually impossible for any development at all along our rural roadsides. In many of our economically depressed rural communities, raising the bar for development is not helpful.”
Barre mayor Thom Lauzon saw the legislation as a means of realizing urban Vermont’s potential.
“Anything that encourages development in downtowns rather than outlying areas, we’re all in favor of,” he articulated his city’s perspective. He placed the legislation in a wider historical framework. “It’s going on a decade since a major mall project has happened in the whole Northeast. Developers are turning more to downtowns.” The days of hell-for-leather development clustered around interstate highway exits, he said, “are over.”
“The bill shows that people recognize that it’s time to do something about strip development,” said Kate McCarthy, sustainable communities program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, which she described as “very pleased” with the result of the give-and-take on the bill. “It ensures that strip development is limited on our landscape. At the same time, it bolsters development in our downtowns, where we want to see it . . . That makes it a balanced bill. We would have liked to see a bit more strength in dealing with strip development, but all in all it’s a good compromise.”
Testifying against the measure, Montpelier realtor Tim Heney took the position that downtown development is all very well, but in practice often consists of more hope than substance, since developers need what Vermont downtowns lack: plenty of parking.
In an interview for this article, Heney also saw the strip development definition as problematic. “Unfortunately,” he said, “it . . . defines some forms of development that are not strip development as strip development. I don’t look at Gallison Hill Road in Montpelier, where Cabot Cheese is located, as strip development. But this bill potentially does throw such [industrial] areas into the strip development definition. It goes beyond what I believe who wrote it intended. I don’t see this helping out any project that I have going in Montpelier.”
McCarthy expressed less skepticism as to the law’s ultimate impact. “When you have strong development of housing in downtowns, it’s easier to walk to work,” she said, referring to the bill’s provisions facilitating urban residential construction. “Downtowns and other compact areas mean that we can have more creative solutions to transportation than the status quo. And we need to move in that direction.”
The legislation cannot have the desired effect unless Vermont’s governments can address the ancillary issue of transportation. Just as the lack of alternatives to the private automobile has thrown spanners into the works for initiatives as varied as Barre’s prospective food co-op and Redstone Commercial Properties’ proposed hotel on Montpelier’s Carr Lot, a modernized Act 250 will have a problematic future without an effective plan for transit and other transportation options to get the masses to, from, and around all those revitalized downtowns.