Environmental Board seeks to alter ‘party status’ rules

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(Host) As political candidates debate ways to reform the state’s permit process, Vermont’s Environmental Board has proposed its own changes. The Board oversees the Act 250 development review law. Its proposal could limit environmental groups from participating in Act 250 reviews.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) Environmental Board Chairwoman Marcy Harding says permit reviews get bogged down when environmental groups appeal high profile cases. So the Board wants to eliminate the way environmental groups traditionally get involved in Act 250 cases.

(Harding) “Absolutely it slows the process down if an appeal is brought to the Environmental Board by materially assisting parties.”

(Dillon) Under the current rules, these groups are admitted to the case as “materially assisting parties.” This means that the environmental organizations can intervene if they show they’ll bring valuable expertise to the case.

Harding and the Environmental Board want to do away with this provision. The change could allow environmental groups to participate at the discretion of the district environmental commission, so long as their involvement doesn’t delay the proceeding.

(Harding) “I think there’s a significant amount of criticism of our process and some of that is directed to those few cases that do involve appeals by materially assisting parties.”

(Dillon) The proposed changes to the Act 250 rules come as gubernatorial candidates debate changes to the law. Harding says her proposals have been in the works for some time, and are not in response to the political campaign.

But Mark Sinclair, senior lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, says the political season is a bad time to be making changes to Act 250 review. Sinclair says the proposals would limit the public’s right to get involved in Act 250 cases. He says the rule change gives too much discretion to the district commission and the Environmental Board.

(Sinclair) “The whole idea of Act 250 has been environmental democracy, allowing citizens to have a say on major development proposals. This change to party status rules appears to make it more difficult for citizens and environmental organizations to participate and get a seat at the Act 250 table.”

(Dillon) The Environmental Board says its proposal on party status is consistent with the rules used by courts and other administrative bodies in Vermont.

But Sinclair disagrees and says the proposal rules do not track the rules used by the courts. Sinclair also notes that 98% of all permit applications are approved and he questions what problem the Board is trying to solve.

Hearings on the proposals are scheduled for October.

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

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