Environmentalists criticize Act 250 exemption

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(Host) Lawmakers are trying to tackle the housing shortage in Vermont by exempting some projects from state environmental review.

At a hearing today, business leaders praised the two pieces of housing legislation. But environmentalists said the bills could have the unintended consequence of promoting sprawl development.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Brenda Torpy, executive director of the Champlain Housing Trust, has been in the housing business for almost three decades. She says some things haven’t changed.

(Torpy) “I’m here to tell you today that when I develop the housing in our three-county region, I still encounter the same barriers that I did 30 years ago.”

(Dillon) Torpy said redundant environmental review – and the opposition of neighbors who are allowed to intervene – can add substantially to the cost of projects. She supports the legislation to exempt certain housing developments from the Act 250 review law. And she said if those projects comply with local zoning, neighbors should not be allowed to be appeal.

But the Act 250 exemption was strongly criticized by Carol Doerflein, a Montpelier resident and retired U.S. Foreign Service officer. She said she spent 20 years working overseas in places where people literally died for democracy.

So Doerflein said she found the bills troubling because they limit the right to public participation.

(Doerflein) “If they are opponents of the development they won’t have a voice, they will effectively be muzzled, while the voices of others will be amplified. Why should we have a situation where some Vermonters can be heard and other Vermonters cannot be heard?”

(Dillon) But environmental engineer Rick DeWolfe supports waiving Act 250 review for some projects. He told the committee that local zoning includes many of the environmental safeguards as Act 250.

(DeWolfe) “When we go through the Act 250 process after going through the local process, you’re re-hashing the issues over again. You’ve only changed the arena, you haven’t changed the issue.”

(Dillon) There’s also debate about whether the legislation will contribute to sprawl, or scattered development away from village centers and downtowns.

Steve Holmes of the Vermont Natural Resources Council said the bills would undermine legislation passed last year to steer projects to growth centers.

And Holmes said there is no guarantee that the exemptions will actually promote housing that’s affordable.

(Holmes) “I could even envision a situation where you could have a gated community with luxury homes exempt from Act 250 in a new neighborhood, while an affordable housing project in a growth center may be not exempt from Act 250.”

(Dillon) But backers of the legislation say the new development would only be steered to areas already designated for housing. They said the legislature needs to remove barriers, because the state faces a critical housing shortage.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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