Jim Kenyon: Troubling development sees Post Mills farmer ousted from regulatory body

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/7/2022 12:00:12 AM
Modified: 8/8/2022 12:39:28 PM

In Vermont, the nine regional environmental commissions have a major say in proposed development projects that fall under the purview of Act 250, the state’s groundbreaking land use law that dates back to the early 1970s.

Tim Taylor, a Post Mills produce farmer, was picked in 2011 by then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, to chair the District 3 Commission, which covers most of Orange County and northern Windsor County.

Since taking office in January 2017, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, twice re-appointed Taylor to lead the three-member panel of resident volunteers.

After Taylor had spent a late July day tending to his farm’s broccoli and cauliflower crops, he found an email in his inbox from the governor.

“The district environmental commissions’ work is impactful and important, and your time and efforts have been appreciated,” the three-paragraph letter stated. “I thank you for your service.”

Just like that, Taylor was out.

It was certainly Scott’s prerogative to make a change. He’s the boss. But why now?

I have a hard time believing that it’s not politics.

Taylor wasn’t someone Scott, whose background is in construction and development, could count on to advance his pro-development agenda.

Taylor was preparing to oversee hearings on proposed building projects in Royalton and Hartland that could prove contentious. Both involve the construction of fairly large retail stores outside designated downtown areas, which flies against Act 250’s stated goal of curbing sprawl and strip development.

With Taylor not around to ask tough questions, the developers’ plans will likely face less scrutiny. I suspect that’s fine with the Scott administration, which has an affinity for bricks and mortar. Environment be damned.

Taylor, 70, moved to the Upper Valley in the 1970s to attend Vermont Law School. Shortly after earning his law degree, he decided that office work wasn’t for him. Taylor and his wife, Janet, started farming on 15 acres they bought in Post Mills. More than 40 years later, Crossroad Farm is an Upper Valley fresh produce mainstay. It has farm stands in Post Mills and Norwich.

Over the years, the Taylors have watched working farms, including their own, ward off developers with the help of Act 250.

“Development is absolutely necessary in our state, but it has to be done with environmental sensitivities and concerns for your neighbor,” said Taylor, who also chairs Thetford’s Development Review Board.

After the governor gave him the heave-ho, Taylor went back through his record books. In the nearly 12 years he served as commission chairman, District 3 issued more than 400 Act 250 permits and conducted roughly 90 hearings on proposed projects. Only 10 permit applications were denied.

“I was not some environmental radical or against growth in Vermont,” he said. “These statistics demonstrate that I did my job conservatively, and there was little to no reason not to renew my term.”

Except for politics.

In early 2020, the Scott administration threw its weight behind a plan to eliminate the nine regional environmental commissions. Scott wanted to create a statewide Natural Resources Board consisting of three full-time commissioners to handle the Act 250 review process.

Opponents saw the plan for what it was — an attack on local control. Taylor was among the people-in-the-know who persuaded lawmakers that it was a bad idea.

Jon Groveman, who served as chairman of the state Natural Resources Board during the Shumlin administration, told me that Taylor has helped environmental commissioners across Vermont gain a better understanding of Act 250. “Having seen a lot and done a lot, he was really a leader,” Groveman said. “Tim was always trying to improve the process.”

On some Act 250 cases and issues, “I didn’t always line up with Tim, but he was always fair,” said Groveman, who now works for the nonprofit Vermont Natural Resources Council. “I don’t know if he had an ideology other than to interpret the law.”

When Act 250 reform measures came up during this year’s legislative session, Taylor was again sought out. His visits to the Statehouse didn’t go unnoticed by the Scott administration.

Taylor shared an email that Natural Resources Board Chairwoman Sabina Haskell, a Scott appointee, sent him this spring.

“I see you’re testifying again,” Haskell wrote. “This must be like the fifth time you’ve been in committee!

“I was asked by the Governor’s office to touch base with you to find out what you’ve been asked to testify on this time and what you plan to say.”

In a phone interview last week, Haskell told me that she didn’t think wanting a heads-up on Taylor’s testimony was an unreasonable request.

“I wasn’t trying to silence him,” she said.

Scott’s press secretary, Jason Maulucci, didn’t respond to my email and phone requests last week to talk about the reasons behind Taylor’s dismissal.

Taylor’s fifth two-year term had actually expired in January 2021. Since no one in the governor’s office told him otherwise, he continued to serve as chair until Scott’s letter arrived in late July.

At the Statehouse, “Act 250 has always been political,” Taylor said. But for district commissioners, it was different. “I’ve served with Republicans, Democrats and independents alike,” he said. “We were not concerned about politics, only the rule of law.”

Like other environmentalists and planners who have watched Taylor at work, Peter Gregory, executive director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, was dismayed by Scott’s decision.

“Tim was professional, consistent and knowledgeable. He was what you wanted on a board like this,” Gregory told me. “It’s certainly a loss for the region and the state.”

Apparently, the governor doesn’t see it the same way. The public’s loss is his political gain.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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