By Guy Page
Recommendations in the Final Report to revise Act 250 would, if enacted, require developers to buy mandatory carbon offsets; restrict development near forests and on property adjacent to “conserved” land; require conformity by all town and regional plans and maps to Act 250’s climate reduction goals; and more.
The report is the result of two years’ study by a Legislature-appointed committee of legislators: Rep. Amy Sheldon, Chair; Sen. Chris Pearson, Vice-Chair; Sen. Brian Campion, Rep. David Deen, Rep. Paul Lefebvre, and Sen. Richard McCormack. Recommendations include:
• Retooling the Vermont State Development Cabinet, created in 2012 to enhance economic development through inter-agency cooperation, to help state government achieve Act 250 “statutory goals,” including climate change reduction. In early 2017, current Act 250 Commission members Sens. Chris Pearson, Dick McCormack, and Brian Campion co-sponsored S. 51 to coordinate climate change reduction across state government. In particular S.51 suggested the creation of a ‘climate cabinet.’
• Required carbon emissions mitigation – including purchase of carbon offsets – of all development reviewed by Act 250:
“The climate change subcriterion would establish a hierarchy of avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from the construction, use, operation, and maintenance of the development or subdivision and the vehicular traffic that it generates. The applicant would first seek to avoid greenhouse gas emissions from the project. To the extent avoiding them is not feasible, they would be minimized. If it is not feasible to avoid or minimize the greenhouse gas emissions, mitigation would be required. This standard would allow for the use of offsets, such as carbon sequestration in Vermont, if they are verifiable and enforceable.”
Offsets require the developer to pay a fixed amount per unit of pollution to the State of Vermont or designated agency, which then reinvests the funds in carbon-reduction. Offset supporters say they discourage emissions-heavy development while providing funding for carbon-reduction. Opponents compare offsets to a carbon tax on both job creation and new housing and industry, and as preferential government funding for Vermont’s politically-influential energy conservation and renewable power industry.
• Legislative committees invited to “upgrade” Act 250 for climate change action – “The standing legislative committees of jurisdiction review the Act 250 criteria to determine if any can be updated to address climate change.”
• Increase emphasis on transportation via bike paths and public transportation – “Amending the transportation criterion to: (a) include review of the safety and congestion impacts to bicycle, pedestrian, and other transit infrastructure and (b) better define when it is appropriate for Act 250 to require projects to incorporate transportation demand strategies and require connectivity to transit services other than single-occupancy vehicles.
• Restrict development on property adjacent to land conserved by state and local land trusts – “Amending the public investment criterion…. to specifically refer to investments made through the State designation program, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and similar programs.”
• Local and regional plans must conform to Act 250 goals – “Improving Act 250’s plan conformance criterion by requiring that local plans must be consistent with the statutory goals for municipal and regional planning.”
• Impose forest fragmentation restrictions from a bill that failed to pass Senate last year – “Criteria be added to protect forest blocks and connecting habitat from fragmentation by adopting the changes contained in H.233 of 2017.”
It is considered likely that some or all of the proposed Act 250 revisions will be introduced as a bill to be considered by the 2019 Legislature.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.