New rules change party status in Act 250 appeals

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(Host) The Legislature has approved new rules that govern who can participate in Act 250 cases. The Douglas administration and business lobbyists pushed for the rule changes. But critics argued that the amendments will limit citizen participation and will do little to help developers.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas wanted the Environmental Board to move ahead on changing the state’s permit process after the issue stalled in the Legislature last spring. A legislative committee that met on Wednesday was the final hurdle for the administration’s plan to change the way the public gets heard in Act 250 cases.

Before the change, environmental groups and local citizen organizations could be admitted if they could show they’d provide expertise to the commissions that review development proposals.

The change eliminates this process – and it does away with the appeal rights for those parties. Instead, there’s a new category called “non-party participants” who cannot appeal decisions to the Environmental Board. The new rule says that only those who can show a direct interest in the project can appeal.

Chuck Nichols of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce supported the new rules.

(Nichols) “Applicants are put in the position, which we believe is unfair, of having to deal with the threat of appeals from people and groups that we don’t believe should have party status or the right to appeal. They’re groups whose interests are not directly affected.”

(Dillon) The committee also heard from environmentalists who argued that the rules were unnecessary. Pat Parenteau, a professor from Vermont Law School, said the rules were arbitrary and were not supported by evidence.

But the committee approved the changes on a 6 to 2 vote. Senator Anne Cummings, a Democrat from Washington County, voted against the changes. She said the rules would hurt local citizens groups whose members may now have a hard time proving that a development directly affects their members.

(Cummings) “I’ve worked with groups that had a dump being sited in their town, another one that has a granite quarry being sited in their area. But in the next town, and many of them don’t abut. Those groups I think this could have a detrimental effect on because they won’t have the clout that they presently have.”

(Dillon) As the Act 250 rules changes go into effect, lawmakers continue to work on broader permit reform legislation.

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

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