Legislators streamline environmental permit process

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(Host) Legislative leaders have reached an agreement that would streamline the environmental permit process. The deal between the House and Senate ends a year-long stalemate on an issue that is a top priority for Governor Jim Douglas. VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Negotiators for the House and Senate shook hands Thursday on a compromise that should clear the way for permit reform legislation this year. They agreed in principle to support legislation that would combine appeals of state and local land use permits into the state’s environmental court.

Canaan Republican Bill Johnson chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.

(Johnson) “We’re quite confident that consolidating appeals to an expanded Environmental Court is going to be a very satisfactory way to handle all the appeals of environmental permits.”

(Dillon) The Senate originally wanted the appeals to be heard by a new citizens-based panel, and not the Environmental Court.

Senator Ginny Lyons is a Chittenden County Democrat who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee. She says the compromise agreement calls for a citizen environmental and water resources board that will write the rules for land use regulations. The legislation will also allow neighbors of a development to appeal a permit decision to the state Supreme Court. Under current law, only the developer can appeal to the high court.

Lyons believes the permit reform bill won’t weaken environmental protection.

(Lyons) “The other principle we’ve adhered to, besides citizen participation, is not to compromise environmental criteria. And we haven’t done that, nor do we want to. Another other positive aspect of this is, I believe, we’ve reduced the political nature of the appeal process. So all of those things bode well for us as we go forward. Having citizen rights to appeal is an important step.”

(Dillon) Governor Douglas made permit reform a top priority since he took office a year ago. The governor was clearly pleased that the legislative logjam had broken. He says the changes are based on common-sense, and will make the development review process more efficient.

(Douglas) “It will make it more predictable, more consistent, fairer. It will make it less expensive. And by consolidating multiple panels into one, then there won’t be a variety of tribunals to which appeals would taken. They would all be taken to a single entity, the environmental court.”

(Dillon) There are still some details to work out with the legislation. But Douglas hopes he’ll have a bill to sign sometime after Town Meeting Day.

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

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