Editorial: Gov. Scott gets it wrong with Act 250 reform veto

Gov. Phil Scott during a news conference in an undated photograph.

Gov. Phil Scott during a news conference in an undated photograph. VtDigger file – Glenn Russell

Published: 06-21-2024 8:01 PM

Modified: 06-24-2024 10:18 AM

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott enjoys a reputation as a split-the-difference kind of guy who’s not about to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. However well-deserved that reputation may be, it is hard to square with his veto this month of sweeping revisions to Act 250, the state’s land use and development law that was enacted in 1970 during the administration of another Republican governor, Deane Davis.

Scott claimed that the bill represented “an expansion of Act 250 that will make it harder, and in some cases impossible, to build and restore homes and grow businesses in smaller, rural communities” and contended that the Legislature had “failed to meet the moment on housing.”

Presumably, this broadside was intended for an election-year audience as the governor pursues a fifth term in which his campaign will target lawmakers who overrode his Act 250 veto and a slew of other ones.

That rhetoric aside, though, the Act 250 revisions represent a compromise between development interests on the one hand and environmental advocates on the other. The bill seeks to strike a balance between promoting growth in the state’s housing stock and preserving its environment, two equally worthy objectives. It may not be perfect, but it can be inferred from the support it received from both the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont Natural Resources Council that it’s a first step in the right direction.

The key change from the current law is that, generally speaking, Act 250 review will be triggered by where a project is located rather than by its size. Thus it will relax Act 250 jurisdiction in existing development centers with the expectation of encouraging housing development where the physical and planning infrastructure exists to handle it, while at the same time extending the law’s protections to ecologically sensitive areas.

The bill tees up a years-long process of mapping and rule-making that will divide Vermont’s land into a series of tiers that will determine how development is treated under Act 250. While that is happening, VtDigger reports, the new law provides a series of interim exemptions from Act 250 review, including for all housing projects in Vermont’s 24 designated downtown areas, which include Windsor, Randolph and White River Junction, and for projects of up to 50 units in dozens of village centers.

How this constitutes “failing to meet the moment on housing” is hard to discern. Addressing the state’s acute housing shortage almost certainly requires building multi-unit projects of sufficient density to make them both affordable for residents and profitable for developers; compact village centers and downtowns are the natural places in which to locate them. Removing Act 250 review in those locations stands to speed up the whole process while lowering costs for developers.

One particular element of the package that nettled Scott and some Republican lawmakers is a new “road rule” that will subject large-scale private road development to automatic Act 250 review. The goal is to limit fragmentation of sensitive forest habitats. It would appear from the current state of things that developers are hardly rushing to build clusters of single-family homes in rural areas, nor is it apparent that such developments would be welcome there. In our view, the more likely effect of this rule is to deter the mega-wealthy from carving up a pristine landscape to build their dream-scape compounds.

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No doubt, Act 250 has long needed modification and modernization to meet changing conditions. Agreement on how to do so proved elusive for many years. The bill that passed during this year’s legislative session represented a grand bargain struck by development interests, planners and environmental advocates that provides a credible road-map to Vermont’s future. It certainly may require changes along the way, as with any complex piece of legislation, but Scott’s refusal to recognize its merits makes us wonder if his objections were lodged in good faith.

Vermonters should also keep in mind as they assess the changes to the law what they owe to Act 250 and the visionaries who passed the original version more than 50 years ago. In striking contrast to much of the rest of the country, the state’s magnificent landscape, scenic beauty and environmental integrity have been largely preserved despite substantial growth during that half-century. Vermont’s economy and residents’ quality of life are highly dependent on those essential protections, and they should be carefully preserved.