House underwhelmed by Senate permit reform plan

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(Host) Vermont Senate negotiators have tried to break a deadlock on permit reform with a proposal to consolidate certain environmental appeals. The Senate offer met with a lukewarm reception from business groups and House members. They have argued that more sweeping changes are needed.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The proposed overhaul of the state’s environmental permit process is one of the last issues that remains unresolved in this year’s Legislature.

The House bill would send all appeals to an expanded environmental court. The Senate hasn’t supported this idea. Many senators like the idea of citizen based review boards, such as the Environmental Board and the Water Resources Board.

The two sides have deadlocked for days. On Thursday, the Senate offered legislation to test another way of hearing appeals. Under the Senate plan, a developer could have appeals of water quality permits and Act 250 permits heard together by a combined Environmental Board and Water Resources Board. Senator Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden County) offered the Senate plan.

(Lyons) “You have in front of you some language which gives you a pilot project for a consolidated appeals process, which is initiated by applicants and which is a combination of the E Board and Water Resources Board.”

(Dillon) Senator Phil Scott (R-Washington County) supports the Senate plan. Scott, a stock car driver, told the conference committee that the proposal gives Vermont a chance to test out a new appeals route for environmental permits.

(Scott) “Before I drive a car, I like to take it for a test drive. And I do that to make sure it’s safe and reliable and performs well. And I think this would give us the opportunity to do that. I think that before we step into buying this expensive car, and making all these changes, that we can try it out for a while and see what it does. I think this could help in the appeals process.”

(Dillon) But business lobbyists were skeptical of the plan. They’ve pushed hard to funnel all appeals to the environmental court. One lobbyist said developers already have the option to seek a combined hearing before the two appeals board.

And it’s not clear if the Senate proposal goes far enough to satisfy the negotiators on the House side. Canaan Republican Bill Johnson chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.

(Johnson) “I don’t know why they happened to choose this. Why didn’t they do a pilot project with the environmental court, putting all the appeals to the environmental court? Maybe test driving a car isn’t a bad idea, but they picked the wrong car.”

(Dillon) But senators argued that the environmental court is backlogged, and that sending more appeals there could lead to further delays. The House negotiators said they’d study the proposal. But for now, there’s still a deadlock on permit reform.

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

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