Act 250 draws fire and support from gov. candidates

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(Host) As the gubernatorial candidates focus on jobs and the economy, they also debate ways to reform Vermont’s environmental permit process. The proposals range from rewriting the state’s major development control law to using more specialists to guide companies through the permit maze. VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The three main candidates for governor have met in more than 30 forums and debates At almost every encounter, they discuss Vermont’s system of environmental laws.

The centerpiece of the state’s permit process is Act 250. The 30-year old law requires local commissions to review major developments for their impact on air, water, town services and other criteria.

Republican Jim Douglas says Act 250 must be changed in order to improve the state’s business climate.

(Douglas) “We’ve got to realize the time for talk, the time for studies, the time for task forces is over. The time for action is now. The most serious problem confronting business leaders in Vermont, based on a survey the Vermont Commerce Agency did last year, is permitting. It’s the regulatory environment here.”

(Dillon) Douglas has been specific on how he would amend Act 250. He says projects that enjoy strong local support sometimes are challenged by special interest groups based out of state. The Republican wants to restrict the involvement of these groups. He says only those directly affected by a project should be allowed to participate in Act 250 hearings.

Independent Con Hogan says the 30-year old land use law must be brought up to date. He says he’d keep much of the criteria of Act 250, but wants to retool the machinery of the law. Hogan’s position on Act 250 was criticized by Democrat Doug Racine during a recent debate.

(Doug Racine) “When you talk about the permit process, you talk about Act 250 and say you’re going to keep the criteria and scrap everything else. What are you going to replace it with? When are you going to offer us some specific ideas, other that just scrapping Act 250?”

(Hogan) “Well, I’ve never said scrap Act 250. I’ve said scrap the machinery that supports 250. I’ve said keep the criteria and celebrate the results. Act 250 has brought us the most wonderful environment and we can even make it better. But it’s old and decrepit – it’s a third of a century old. Business doesn’t get by doing that. Business reinvents itself every so often. They reinvent the machinery they use to make their product. That’s what I want to do with Act 250.”

(Dillon) Hogan says he’d bring business and environmental groups together to find a solution. He says the state can make better use of information technology so companies can get permit information online.

Democrat Doug Racine also wants to use the Internet for environmental review. Racine would also use permit specialists to guide companies through state review:

(Racine) “We talk a lot in this campaign about the permit problem. I think it is a serious problem. Act 250, however, is good. Act 250 is one of our strengths in this state. But we need to have a government process that allows people to get through that process in a fair and in a predictable and least costly way possible. It needs better management. It needs one-stop shopping. It needs a speedier appeals process. We need to use computer technology in that process.”

(Dillon) Racine says he supports the right of citizens to participate in Act 250, and is skeptical of plans to limit the role of environmental groups.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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