Permit reform signed into law at Statehouse celebration

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas signed permit reform legislation into law on Thursday, with a campaign-style celebration at the Statehouse.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) With the gold dome of the Statehouse as a backdrop, Governor Douglas touted permit reform as a key part of his job-creation strategy.

(Douglas) “This bill as passed by the House and Senate represents a collaborative, bi-partisan solution to Vermont’s need to allow economic development and job creation while protecting our greatest asset, our natural environment.”

(Dillon) The legislation consolidates appeals of environmental permits. No longer will cases be heard by the Environmental Board, the Water Resources Board, or several other panels. Instead, permit appeals will go to the Environmental Court. The court will be expanded with an additional judge and three support staff.

The law also both tightens and expands the rights of citizens to appeal development permits. The rules are tighter, because in order to appeal, people now must get involved in a case at a very early stage instead of intervening at the last minute. But for the first time, neighbors and others have the right to appeal a permit decision all the way to the Supreme Court.

Douglas campaigned two years ago on the need to overhaul the state’s environmental permit process. The legislature worked on the issue over 15 months and hammered out a compromise in recent weeks. The governor says the law preserves environmental protection.

(Douglas) “All of this is accomplished without altering any of the core criteria of Act 250 that represent the bedrock of our environmental protection law.”

(Dillon) The bill signing had the trappings of a campaign event. Republican lawmakers stood in line behind the governor and posed for the cameras. A TV crew working for the Douglas re-election campaign filmed the proceedings. And even the Legislature’s leading Democrat, Senate President Peter Welch, had words of praise for the governor.

(Welch) “I want to thank you, Governor Douglas, for the leadership that you provided to put this issue on the agenda.”

(Dillon) Welch worked on the House-Senate conference committee. He said it was a learning process for all involved.

(Welch) “And in the course of our discussions with folks who came at this from the permit side, who had frustrations with the actual way it worked, we came to see that they had confidence that the environmental protections could be about the environment, and not about stalling the essential growth that’s important for Vermont’s economy. Governor, you helped us see that.”

(Dillon) The bill also overhauls local zoning and planning law in order to make the process more timely and predictable across the state.

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

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