Vermont’s Scott signs ‘HOME’ bill, legalizing duplexes statewide and tweaking Act 250

Published: 6/6/2023 4:52:37 PM
Modified: 6/6/2023 4:52:37 PM

Gov. Phil Scott signed a wide-ranging bill Monday that aims to ease Vermont’s housing crisis by chipping away at certain state and local regulatory barriers to residential construction. 

Among several municipal reforms, S.100 will effectively ban single-family zoning statewide by legalizing duplexes wherever year-round residential development is allowed. (Towns and cities will also have to allow tri- and four-plexes if the area is served by water and sewer.) The “Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone,” or HOME, law will also make smaller, temporary reforms to Act 250, Vermont’s more than 50-year-old land-use law.

“This bill represents what we can get done when we all come to the table, work through our differences, and reach compromise to the benefit of all Vermonters, especially our most vulnerable and marginalized,” the Republican governor said in a statement Monday. “We will continue to focus on turning the tide of this housing crisis. More important work lies ahead, but this bill is a great start.”

Support for the bill was widespread and crossed party lines: A final roll call in the House saw 135 members vote in support of the measure and just 11 oppose it. The Senate, likewise, passed out an earlier version of the legislation on a 27 to 2 vote.

Indeed, the debate centered not so much on what was in the bill as what was left out: namely, more aggressive roll-backs of Act 250. Some municipalities did object to the bill’s local zoning reforms, and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns strongly opposed them, arguing that the state was forcing municipalities to give up their power without making an equivalent sacrifice. But even the league’s chief objections were fundamentally an argument for further Act 250 reform — not against zoning changes.

Environmental watchdogs opposed major amendments to Act 250, arguing that proposals did little to ensure that new housing would actually be affordable. A final compromise increases the threshold at which state review is triggered under the law to 25 units, but only in certain state-designated areas. 

Those Act 250 tweaks also expire in 2026. Several reports are due back to the Legislature next year on the subject of the law’s potential modernization, and environmentalists reasoned that any permanent changes should wait until the state has those findings in hand. 

A fierce debate about whether — and how — to reform the landmark land-use law is expected to start anew when lawmakers reconvene in 2024, a fact Scott hinted at in Monday’s bill-signing statement.

“Given the depth of our housing crisis, we know there are more reforms needed to really turn the tide, particularly with Act 250,” Scott said in his statement. Noting that he has long pushed for such changes, the governor added, “I will continue to pursue commonsense modernizations to make sure all Vermonters can afford a safe, decent home.”

The bill was the result of months of behind-the-scenes work that predated the start of the legislative session in January and involved environmentalists, planners, lawmakers and administration officials.

“This is an issue that, directly or indirectly, affects all Vermonters,” Rep. Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester, who spearheaded those pre-session talks, said in a statement released by Scott’s office. “It is rewarding that the Administration and the Legislature were able to come together, work shoulder-to-shoulder, and get something this important done for the people of Vermont.”

The new law’s municipal provisions echo “Yes in my backyard” reform movements across the country, whose proponents argue that certain zoning rules — some with segregationist roots — have effectively outlawed cheaper, denser housing in much of America. Oregon, for example, banned single-family zoning in 2019; California did so in 2021 (to muted effect so far); and Washington state followed suit (with some notable exceptions) this year.

The law will also ease local parking space requirements, which developers say often require housing projects to sacrifice units to make room for unnecessary parking spots. And residents appealing the zoning permit of an affordable housing project won’t be allowed to do so on the grounds that it goes against the “character of the area.” 

Several provisions, including new minimum density requirements, specifically apply to areas served by municipal water and sewer, and the bill’s proponents say they’re intentionally directing new housing into areas that are already developed to avoid sprawl. 

Most municipal reforms take effect in December 2024. But provisions that will make it harder for municipalities to block the establishment or operation of a homeless shelter go into effect this September.

The legislation was also championed by Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D/P-Chittenden Southeast, the new chair of the Senate’s Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs committee.

“Vermonters have never been more unified in asking us to prioritize permanent, affordable housing,”  Ram Hinsdale said in a statement. “They can be proud that we set aside our differences in Montpelier and forged an uncommon alliance to deliver historic reforms. Creating a pathway to homeownership should not be partisan, and what we accomplished put Vermont families ahead of political gridlock, so we can see smart, compassionate growth in all corners of the state.”

The law also authorizes tens of millions in one-time spending on affordable housing construction. But that money is tied up in the state budget, which Scott vetoed last week — over unrelated objections — and could be released once the Legislature either overrides the governor or writes a new spending plan to which he agrees.

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