House, Senate continue deliberations on permit reform

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(Host) Vermont legislators have agreed that appeals to development and environmental permits should occur in one place. But who can have status in the hearings on development proposals and how permits are appealed are both issues that are unresolved.

VPR’s John Dillon reports on the House and Senate conference committee’s deliberations on the long debate over permit reform.

(Dillon) Legislation to change the permit process stalled last spring between the Democratically controlled Senate and the Republican controlled House.

On Wednesday, the two sides exchanged offers and it was clear a deal was getting closer. Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Welch, a Windsor County Democrat, says the Senate has acquiesced to the House on a key point. Welch says the Senate will now accept the idea that state and local environmental permit appeals should be consolidated in one body.

(Welch) “That’s been a goal of the House. You’ve persuaded us that that’s in the interest of Vermonters, and it can be done in a way that protects participation in the process.”

(Dillon) But there’s still not agreement over who gets to participate in Act 250 cases – and who gets to appeal Act 250 decisions to the Supreme Court. The Senate wants to give people who are allowed into Act 250 cases -neighbors of a development, for example – the right to challenge a permit at the Supreme Court. Under current law, only the developer can appeal to the high court.

Welch told the conference committee that the negotiations may get stuck on this issue of appeals and party status in Act 250.

(Welch) “So in all candor, we’ve got a very, very significant difference here. We’ve had a lot of discussions on both sides about that. I don’t know whether we’re going to get past it or not. But that seems to be the heart of the disagreement.”

(Dillon) Canaan Republican Bill Johnson, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is the lead negotiator for the House side. He says the House is willing to compromise on party status rules and Supreme Court appeals.

But Johnson prefers that permit cases go to an expanded Environmental Court, instead of the citizens’ appeals board that the Senate proposed. He says professional judges are better able to deal with the complex legal issues.

(Johnson) “Our concern, I think, is that with the permissive rules of intervention, the courts are obviously experienced and have the demeanor to deal with that permissive intervention. And we don’t have the same level of confidence in a newly created panel that we have no experience with.”

(Dillon) Johnson says he’s flexible on the issues. His side has outlined several options for the Senate to consider, including one that allows both the expanded Supreme Court appeals rights and the citizen-based boards. The conference committee didn’t set a time to meet again, but Johnson says he hopes it’s soon.

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

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