Vt. Environmental Official: Make Permit Process Simpler

Montpelier — Vermont’s environmental permit review process must be changed, according to a top state regulatory enforcement official.

David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, told members of the Associated Industry of Vermont on Tuesday that the state must make it easier for developers to apply for environmental permits such as those for stormwater, septic and wetlands.

“I remain utterly, completely frustrated by the permit review process,” Mears told a crowd of business owners attending the event. He said there should be more public involvement in the early stages of a permit review and an expedited appeal for concerns raised after a permit decision is issued.

Last minute permit appeals to the state environmental court cost developers time and money, Mears said, and they are a “headache” for the agency.

Mears said the appeal process should include what is called an on-the-record review in which a court would weigh the evidence that has already been presented by the state and the developers, rather than deciding an appeal de novo, with all new information.

Such a permitting application process would be more efficient and would still protect the environment, in his view. Mears said it is a waste of tax dollars to pay for lawyers, a new permit analysis and other work associated with an appeal.

Previous proposals to adopt on-the-record review have failed in the Legislature. This year, Mears says he would like to present a balanced proposal to the Legislature that has both the support of the business community and environmental groups.

“I have no interest in trying to jam any of these improvement ideas down anybody’s throat,” he said.

DEC issues a variety of permits including septic, wetlands, stormwater, air pollution emissions and groundwater contamination. In some cases, DEC permits are required to complete the Act 250 permitting process.

Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said there is often little or no notice and time given to the public to engage in the permit review.

“The only way you can have a say in it is to appeal it,” she said. The Agency of Natural Resources works out deals with developers before they file for a permit, Smith says, and then the agency says the documents are confidential because they are part of a contractual agreement.

“There’s no record. Nobody writes anything down,” Smith said.

Mears said getting the public involved on the front end of the permit review process is a fair “trade” for making the process more efficient. The department is also working to provide the public with electronic filings and records on its website.

Jake Brown, a spokesman for the Vermont Natural Resources Council spokesman, said it is too early to say whether the environmental advocacy group would support the Mears’ suggested changes to the permitting process.

VNRC in the past has opposed broad permit reforms to create on-the-record review. Brown said citizens must have a voice in the permitting process without having to pay too much for legal fees.

Bill Driscoll, vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont, a trade group representing manufacturers, said similar proposed permit changes in the past have failed.

“It was good to hear that intent. I think the question is can we capture that and make it happen,” Driscoll said.

AIV hosted a seminar in Montpelier to inform businesses about new environmental regulations.

Top among businesses’ concerns were recent changes to the state land use and development permit setting new constraints for strip development and encouraging growth in downtowns.

The changes to Act 250 were signed into law this year.

Driscoll said some of his members are already running into compliance issues.

“Theses are things that can have a real impact on whether or not folks can expand or do new construction in the state,” Driscoll said.

He said the event is designed to alert the business community about approaches to dealing with the new regulations.

Other new regulations set to phase-in include the state’s requirement to restore Lake Champlain’s water quality, a stricter recycling and composting program, revisions to the state’s wetlands programs and post natural disaster recovery construction guidelines, state officials said at the conference. These changes are enforced through new permit guidelines.

“There continues to be a proliferation of requirements,” Driscoll said. Municipalities are duplicating state permit regulations, he said, and there have been few efforts in recent years to streamline the permitting process.

Regulations have not blocked development altogether, he said, but the state’s permitting requirements cost businesses money in fees to the state and legal expenses.