Board hears testimony on proposed Act 250 rule changes

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(Host) The Environmental Board was criticized Wednesday for its proposed changes to the rules for Vermont’s Act 250 development law. At a public hearing, witnesses questioned if election year politics and pressure from development groups were behind the changes. They told the Board that its proposal could exclude the public from Act 250 hearings.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Environmental Board’s proposed changes would eliminate the way environmental and citizen groups now get involved in Act 250 cases. Developers have complained that these groups can snarl their projects with months of appeals. But according to most of the witnesses who testified on the changes, the proposal would gut citizen involvement in Act 250.

Steve Wright is a former state Fish and Wildlife commissioner and former member of the Environmental Board. Wright now works for the National Wildlife Federation. He says the proposed changes go against Vermont’s way of government.

(Wright) “I spent four years as a bureaucrat in this state, four years during which the great majority of my time was spent seeking additional citizen input for fish and wildlife management programs. And to have a board, a major board in this state to suggest that we limit citizen participation is absolutely… I am incredulous. It is incongruent with the way we do things here.”

(Dillon) Wright and other witnesses want the Board to justify its proposal with hard facts. They say that 98% of all Act 250 applications are approved; 65% got their permits in 60 days or less. They note that there have been only six appeals by statewide environmental groups in the last 12 years.

Conrad Smith used the Act 250 land use law to fight a golf course and development that was proposed for Huntington. He says the public brings issues and expertise to Act 250 review.

(Smith) “You’ve probably heard this before but, what’s the problem? What is the problem with the current rule, the 14b2 rule that allows – doesn’t demand – but allows the district commissions and the Board to accept somebody as a party who can materially assist the process? I don’t know what the problem is that’s trying to be fixed.”

(Dillon) This was the Environmental Board’s first hearing on the rule changes. Less than 24 hours before the hearing, the Board put out an alternative proposal on party status that it says more closely tracks the rule used by other state boards. Chairwoman Marcy Harding says the Board will now consider both proposals.

While environmentalists say the Board is trying to fix a system that isn’t broken, Harding says others disagree:

(Harding) “I’m not sure everybody would agree that there isn’t a problem. And that’s why we felt it was worth it – and we’ve tried to do twice before – to make some revisions in party status. And we’re here to hear what the public has to say.”

(Dillon) The proposed amendments to Act 250 rules come as political candidates debate changes to the law. Some witnesses told the Board that it shouldn’t bow to pressure in the middle of a political campaign.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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