Board endorses changes in Act 250 review process

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(Host) The Vermont Environmental Board has endorsed new rules that govern who can participate in the review of proposed development projects. But critics fear the rules will limit how the public gets involved in Act 250 cases. The changes fulfill part of Governor Jim Douglas’s promise to revise the environmental permit process.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The rule changes were aimed at environmental groups and others who have been allowed to participate in Act 250 hearings. Before the change, these groups could be admitted as parties if they could show they would provide expertise to the district commissions that review development projects.

The board eliminated this route for the public to get involved in Act 250. The board replaced it with a new category called non-party participation. Under this definition, groups could present testimony and cross examine witnesses. But they could not appeal decisions to the Environmental Board.

The new rule says only those who can show a direct property interest in the project can appeal. Board chairwoman Patricia Moulton Powden believes the change preserves public input.

(Powden) “That’s a founding principle of Act 250 is that citizen participation. And we have not eliminated that by any means. What we have done is restrict appeal rights to those who have a direct interest in the project and can demonstrate that they may be affected, which in my opinion and the majority of the board’s opinion, is that that’s appropriate.”

(Dillon) The chairwoman says there could be cases in which environmental groups may be able to prove that they or their members are directly affected, and therefore they could obtain appeal rights.

But Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a citizens group based in Danby, says the board has effectively closed the door on many environmental organizations. She also says the process will now become more legalistic because lawyers will argue over what the new rules means.

(Smith) “This is going to mean that the district commissions are going to be lawyered up. It’s exactly the wrong direction to go. And it’s going to mean that the burden has now shifted to individuals who do not have the resources, the time, the energy or the tax deductible status. So yes, organizations may get in, but that’s exactly what the problem is. There’s no definition of what bar we would have to meet and it would be litigated.”

(Dillon) The Legislature has already worked on a more comprehensive permit reform package. Chittenden County Democratic Senator Virginia Lyons chairs the Senate Natural Resources. She wanted the Environmental Board to hold off while the Legislature finished its work.

(Lyons) “I think in one way it’s disrespectful of the legislative process to allow that to happen. On the other hand, they have every right to change the rules and they’ve done that.”

(Dillon) Lyons says her committee will continue to work on permit reform, including amendments that are aimed at improving local planning and zoning laws. The rule changes now go to a joint House and Senate committee for approval.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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