By Guy Page
A proposed rewrite of Act 250, Vermont’s land use and development law, would make all development projects achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions or else pay carbon offsets.
The new Act 250 also would restrict development above 2,000 feet elevation, limit forest fragmentation, and control development adjacent to property now in a state conservation program. It also would require towns, cities and county plans to be compliant with its goals and guidelines.
The Commission on Act 250: the next 50 Years issued its “potential legislation” document Dec. 14 after more than a year of study. Everything appearing in quotes below is cited verbatim from the Commission’s 45-page proposed bill. Proposed revisions to the current Act 250 include:
A New Name: “Vermont Act on Land Use and the Environment (VALUE).”
All new development must be net-zero for carbon emissions, or else purchase of offsets will be required: “Amending the criteria to address climate change, including requiring projects to have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and to be designed to withstand and adapt to climate change.”
“There will be net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the construction, operation, and maintenance of the development or subdivision and the vehicular traffic that it generates. Any offsets used shall be third-party verified and enforceable by the applicant and its successors and assigns and by the State of Vermont.”
This statutory creation of required “offset” payments would require all but the most carbon-neutral developers to pay extra to fund renewable power and conservation, as overseen by the State of Vermont.
Preventing development that would break up blocks of forests (“forest fragmentation”) and harm necessary wildlife habitat: “Amending the criteria to address ecosystem protection through protecting forest blocks and connecting habitat…..A necessary wildlife habitat means concentrated habitat which is identifiable and is demonstrated as being decisive to the survival of a species of wildlife at any period in its life, including breeding and migratory periods.”
Lower ridgelines: “The bill also would increase the program’s ability to protect ecosystems on ridgelines by reducing the elevation threshold from 2,500 to 2,000 feet.”
Almost all elevations above 2,000 feet are located outside of the Chittenden/Washington County corridor, as seen on this elevation map of Vermont. An exception is made for ridgeline energy generation and transmission and cellphone towers, which already are overseen by another law, Act 248.
Strict compliance to and adherence by municipal and regional plans to VALUE/Act 250: “to be used in Act 250, local and regional plans must be approved as consistent with the statutory planning goals.”
In other words, Montpelier would call the tune for all municipal and county development. Towns and city officials could not appeal to their municipal planning document before a VALUE/Act 250 review board, unless the plan already complies with VALUE/Act 250. This “we’ll only listen to you if you agree with us” approach in recent years has been tried by state officials supporting state-only control of ridgeline wind turbine construction. It was met in some towns with outrage and derision and may have actually stimulated local opposition to wind and solar projects.
Urban development preferred over rural: municipalities that comply with VALUE/Act 250 may obtain an “enhanced jurisdiction” to “support economic development in compact centers while promoting a rural countryside and protecting important natural resources.” In plain terms, permitted development in approved sections of urban centers are put on a relatively “fast track” of regulatory approval, while regulations are tightened for similar projects in rural areas.
Forest fragmentation would prohibit subdivision, but allow some farming, logging improvements: “Fragmentation means the division or conversion of a forest block or connecting habitat by the separation of a parcel into two or more parcels; the construction, conversion, relocation, or enlargement of any building or other structure, or of any mining, excavation, or landfill; and any change in the use of any building or other structure, or land, or extension of use of land. However, fragmentation does not include the division or conversion of a forest block or connecting habitat by a recreational trail or by improvements constructed for farming, logging, or forestry purposes below the elevation of 2,000 feet.”
Protection of any ‘Critical resource,’ which is defined as rivers, ‘significant’ wetlands, and any land characterized by shallow soil and a slope of greater than 15%.
Higher standard imposed on energy-efficient construction – New construction must comply not only with state “renewable building energy standards” (RBES), but with the 2013 “Stretch Codes” – building energy codes that require even more energy efficiency than the RBES.
A similar plan in New York City has raised concerns that housing will become even more unaffordable there, contributing to an increase in the city’s homeless population of 76,000 – already the nation’s largest. Greater Burlington now has the 14th highest rent in the nation. VALUE/Act 250 adding to the cost of new housing will almost certainly make this problem even worse.
Jurisdiction over Interstate interchanges – all development near an Interstate exchange must comply with 2004 state guidelines about development use and scale.
Conserved housing, farmland, and historic sites get special protection from adjacent land development – Act 250 now requires developers of land adjacent to schools, hospitals, airports, government office buildings, etc. to prove their project will diminish “public investment” in these lands.
VALUE/Act 250 would extend “public investment” protection to all conserved land overseen by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust, which includes designated housing, farmland, historic sites. Its footprint is considerable According to the VT Natural Resources Council, “Since 1987, VHCB loans and grants have been used to conserve more than 161,700 acres of agricultural land on 682 farms around the state. More than 261,000 acres of natural areas and public recreational lands have been conserved and affordable homes and apartments (including rental and co-op apartments, single family homes, duplexes and mobile home lots) have been created or preserved, housing more than 30,000 Vermonters.”
The Act 250 Commission described its Dec. 14 document as “potential draft legislation.” Bills can’t be officially introduced until January. Legislators and all other interested Vermonters will have plenty of bites at the apple of public input over VALUE/Act 250.
Members of the Act 250 Commission are Rep. Amy Sheldon, Chair. Sen. Christopher A. Pearson, Vice Chair, Sen. Brian Campion, Rep. David L. Deen, Rep. Paul Lefebvre, and Sen. Dick McCormack. Online comments may be sent to the Commission at Act250Comments@leg.state.vt.us.
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.