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Saturday, March 22, 2003
Permit overhaul OKd by split House committee
By TRACY SCHMALER Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER A House committee passed a much-anticipated bill Friday that overhauls the states environmental permitting process.
The bill, which mirrors in many ways the permit reform proposal offered by Gov. James Douglas earlier this year, was approved 7-4 by the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Rep. William Johnson, R-Canaan, committee chairman, said the bill adds predictability, consistency and timeliness to a process that has become a morass for some applicants and hindered economic development in the state.
This is a very good start. Im pleased with the outcome, Johnson said. Is this all there is to permit reform? No, it isnt.
But opponents of the bill said it gives the administration authority that is too broad in some areas and does not address the real issues plaguing the system, such as too few resources in the Agency of Natural Resources to manage the permit applications. I dont think this is the proper solution for the problem, said Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, who voted against the bill. I think theres a lot of hype and myth about the problems in the permitting process.
The bill consolidates the permit appeals process so that all reviews would be heard by the state Environmental Court. The court would be enhanced to consist of two judges rather than one, and add staff to handle the increased workload.
Currently, appeals of Act 250 permits issued by district commissions go to the Environmental Board, while appeals of local zoning or development review board permits are heard by the Environmental Court.
Meanwhile, appeals for other permits issued by state agencies could land in various places, including the Water Resources Board, the Waste Facility Panel and the Air and Solid Waste Variance Board.
The bill, like Douglas proposal, keeps the Environmental Board, but reduces its authority. It also phases out or eliminates the other boards in favor of the court.
One controversial provision of the bill would allow for so-called dispositive permits so that permits issued by state agencies would satisfy criteria in parallel regulatory proceedings such as Act 250 reviews.
Supporters say it reduces redundancy for applicants, who endure several reviews on similar issues from different entities. Critics counter that it weakens the review of projects and could jeopardize environmental protection.
The measure also narrows eligibility rules for parties who can appeal permits and extends a pilot project for applicants to elect to have proceedings at the district commission level recorded and have any appeals based on that record.
The House bill adds a scoping meeting element to the process. The meeting would be an informal meeting between the applicant and state officials and interested parties to vet potential hurdles in the project. These meetings would be voluntary, according to the bill.
The bill, which has the support of several business groups, is expected to be debated on the floor in the next few weeks.
Streamlining the environmental permit process in the state was a prominent issue for lawmakers of all political stripes in the last election.
Douglas, a Republican, made it an integral part of his campaign, and later his administrations economic development agenda this year.
The governor is very pleased with (the) decision the committee has made and he hopes his permit reform proposal will meet with similar enthusiastic response on the floor of the House and in the Senate, said Jason Gibbs, Douglas press secretary.
Douglas has said he would like to see a bill passed this year, but leaders in the Democratic Senate have said they will take the time needed to vet the various reform bills and come up with a measure of their own.
If we can come up with something we can agree that doesnt disturb the whole process, we will do that, said Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden, chairwoman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee. If we recommend more changes, well hold off until next year.
But Douglas does not want a delay. He has already scheduled to tour the districts of some senators in the next few weeks to highlight permit reform with the hopes of putting pressure on senators to act this year, according to sources.
He will be in Chittenden, Addison and Orange counties in the next few weeks to push for permit reform. Four senators on the Natural Resources Committee hail from those districts.
That would really make me angry, Lyons said. Certainly part of the process is to talk to people around the state, but Im certainly not going to be intimidated.
Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Welch, D-Windsor, said he hoped Douglas would not try to politicize the issue.
We dont want to pass a political fig leaf. We want to pass a good bill, Welch said. I dont want this to become politicized. The Democrats want permit reform. The dilemma so far is the administration has provided little meaning to that buzz word.
Permit Reform Picks Up Speed
Montpelier, Vermont - March 21, 2003
One of the Governor's big initiatives cleared a major hurdle Friday afternoon. An important House committee endorsed his plan for permit reform. It's a sweeping bill that changes the state's environmental permitting process. By a seven-to-four margin, the House Natural Resources committee endorsed a plan aimed at making that process more predictable and more timely.
Under the bill, the Water Resources Board is eliminated. The Environmental Board will oversee all permit issues, but that panel would no longer hear appeals. That task goes to an environmental judge. "In court people have the ability to stand before a judge and plead their case and I think that is very important. I have changed my mind on... I think the ability to stand before a judge, plead your case, shed a tear if you want to is something that is very, very valuable," said the panel's chairman Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Canaan.
Some committee members voted no because they wanted more time to flesh out the details. Others objected because they don't think Act 250 is the problem. That was the view of Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington. "I think we have created a solution to the wrong problem. We have changed many parts of the Act 250 appeal process, when in reality the majority of the problem has to do with local permitting and ANR permitting which is really a matter of staff and resources and we have cut that budget for years."
The reform package is essentially what the Governor wanted. It now will go to the full house where it will be debated. If it passes there, it goes to the Senate. Its future there is uncertain.
Burlington Free Press
Thursday, March 20, 2003
Work starts on changing Act 250
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- Picture a group of mechanics, up to their elbows in the innards of an old Ford.
That was the House Natural Resources Committee this week, as members tinkered with ideas to make Vermont's environmental permitting process quicker, more predictable and less costly.
Like an old car, the permit process seems to draw as many complaints as it has passengers: The Ford will still get you to the store, but there's a knock under the hood, the engine's burning oil and her speed tops out at about 50 mph.
Legislative mechanics, Republicans and Democrats alike, promised voters in the fall they'd do a mechanical makeover to improve the process while continuing to protect the environment.
Now, down there in the greasy engine, the precise source and relative seriousness of the problems aren't clear -- nor is the best strategy for repairs.
For example, some committee members said they have discovered, or been reminded, that the public debate on permitting has been somewhat misleading.
Critics most often cite Act 250, Vermont's 33-year-old development review law that weighs the impact of developments on natural and community resources.
"But Act 250 is not necessarily the problem," said Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington. Instead, he and others said, "Act 250" sometimes is used as shorthand for permit problems that lie elsewhere.
"We've found a huge number of the complaints really are about local zoning decisions or the Agency of Natural Resource permits," Zuckerman said.
In the Senate, key members say they fear Gov. Jim Douglas and the Republican House have misdiagnosed the problem and are trying to fix the wrong parts of the machinery.
"It's a solution in search of a problem," Sen. Gerry Gossens, D-Addison, said of the House plan to revamp the permit appeal process. Gossens sits on the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
The House bill -- due by the end of the week -- is expected to focus largely on Act 250 changes. Douglas promised those changes during his run for governor, and the committee's bill builds on his proposal:
-- Consolidating appeals in an expanded Environmental Court. The Water Resources Board, which hears water pollution appeals, would be eliminated. The Environmental Board would be stripped of its role in hearing appeals of Act 250 land use decisions.
-- Setting tougher standards for who may appeal regional Act 250 decisions.
-- Eliminating Act 250 review of air and water pollution permits issued by the Agency of Natural Resources.
The committee also is discussing a new "scoping" step early in the life of major projects. State and local regulators, abutting property owners, townspeople and any interested people would be invited to a meeting where they would lay out their questions and worries.
The meeting would help developers as a kind of early-warning system, and would give those who might be affected early notice that a development is planned.
"The goal is to get everybody in early, at a time when a project isn't in final form," said committee Vice Chairwoman Alice Nitka, D-Ludlow. "Developers could talk about what they might do to address neighbors' concerns."
An expanded court
Some permit complaints receive little or no attention in the committee's bill.
There is little, for example, that addresses developers' frustration about duplicate review at the local and state level.
Environmentalists will not find much to assuage their concern about too-permissive permitting by the Agency of Natural Resources or the uphill battle facing neighbors who object to a project's environmental impact.
Committee Chairman Bill Johnson, R-Canaan, is the first to acknowledge the bill's limits.
"Permit reform is almost limitless," he lamented. "This is a first attempt and we haven't been able to work on every issue."
Instead, much of the committee's work has focused on environmental appeals.
Relatively few permit decisions are appealed. In 2002, only 16 out of 562 Act 250 decisions were appealed, for example. That has led some environmentalists to question the committee's focus.
"Appeals are not the problem. Look at the number of appeals. It's very small," said Patrick Berry of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
A number of high-profile appeals have attracted broad attention and they were a focus of the fall campaign.
"As a means to further an extreme political agenda, out-of-state special-interest groups have commandeered the permitting process in Vermont and drowned out the voices of Vermonters," Douglas warned during his gubernatorial campaign.
That unnamed group was the Conservation Law Foundation, and Douglas has proposed rewriting Act 250 in a way that could make it more difficult for CLF to file Act 250 appeals. (CLF has participated in eight Act 250 cases in the past five years and filed one appeal.)
Local zoning decisions now are appealed to the Environmental Court; Act 250 decisions to the laypeople on the Environmental Board; and Agency of Natural Resources water quality permits to the Water Resources Board, also composed of laypeople.
This fragmentation occasionally allows project opponents to appeal a project multiple times to different bodies. Developers end up with more expense and delay.
Some people on both sides of the permit reform debate -- environmentalists as well as business groups -- also believe the time has come to turn appeals over to professional judges.
Thus the committee is considering an expanded Environmental Court to hear all appeals.
But how many judges does such a court need? Should they be specialists, or rotate off the Superior Court bench? How friendly and accessible will this court be to ordinary people, applicants as well as project opponents? Would it deliver decisions more quickly, or more slowly, than the current system?
Committee members have heard opinions on both sides and had made no final decisions by Wednesday.
Business groups have made their own, more far-reaching, proposal for permit reform, one that would replace local zoning and Act 250 boards with a single, new reviewing body.
Nevertheless, they are supporting the bill under development in the House.
"If we want to get something, there obviously is going to be compromise," said Chuck Nichols of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council was more cautious.
"We think the bill is going to be a mixed bag," Berry said. The group likes the idea of early "scoping" meetings that could lead to negotiated solutions to a project's environmental impact. The watchdog group is dubious about expanding the Environmental Court at the expense of citizen boards.
The House bill will need approval from the full House and then faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
Senators have spent less time on state permit reform. They've concentrated instead on a bill that reforms Vermont's local planning and zoning laws.
Gossens and Senate Natural Resources Chairwoman Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden, see streamlining and reforming local zoning reviews as the foundation which ought to precede any changes in the state permit process.
"That is permit reform," Gossens said.
Lyons said her committee will consider the House bill, but won't act this year simply in the name of passing a bill.
"We want to work thoughtfully on identifying what the problems are. Anecdotal evidence is the worst basis for changing the law," Gossens agreed. "We won't act just because of pressure to 'do something' this year."
Lyons said she has doubts about turning from citizen boards to a court system to decide environmental cases and equally serious concerns about limiting some people's appeal rights.
"What we really are protecting is the environment, and the people who know it best are the local citizens -- the naturalist who has walked the fields or the hunter who knows there's bear habitat on a piece of land," she said. "We need to keep the process open to them."
Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or 229-9141 or email@example.com
Monday, March 17, 2003
Time is growing short for getting bills passed
By ROSS SNEYD The Associated Press
MONTPELIER Lawmakers begin facing a series of deadlines this week for getting bills moving if they hold out any hope for them to be enacted into law this year.
That means theres likely to be a flurry of activity in the committees this week, particularly in the House, as legislative leaders push such high-profile initiatives as regulatory permit reform, a jobs creation package, enhanced penalties for drug crimes and the budget.
Senators will spend the early part of the week working their way through a midyear adjustment of state spending, intended to accommodate in the states budget outlook since it first was adopted late in the last legislative session.
House Speaker Walter Freed, R-Dorset, said he has told House committee chairmen that they should try to act on bills that theyre most interested in by the end of the week.
Whatevers going to happen, its got to start by the end of (the) week, Freed said.
One exception to that command in the House is the ongoing effort to modify the way the state pays for education. The tax-writing Ways and Means Committee has spent nearly the entire session trying to figure out an entirely new way to pay for schools.
Its getting closer to finishing its work. Rep. Richard Marron, R-Stowe, committee chairman, said he wanted to vote a bill out of the committee before a pair of public hearings in coming weeks designed to get voters views of the initiative.
My idea would be to get a bill out of the committee by the end of (the) week, Marron said.
The committee has planned a formal public hearing March 27 at the State House at 7:30 p.m.
Talks are under way to have that broadcast live statewide on Vermont Public Television.
Freed appeared before the Ways and Means Committee last week to endorse the panels work and make clear his intention that a bill emerge from the Legislature this year to deal with the Act 60 education funding formula.
I told them that we would have some kind of tax plan, Freed said. The Senate is predictably invested in the property tax. Ours is to move away from the property tax.
An already approved Senate bill would maintain the basic structure of Act 60, but would simplify it by getting of the two-tiered property tax system. A single statewide property tax would be levied, but its rate would vary depending on local spending decisions.
The House plan would be a lot different. It would seek to fund most of the states responsibility for education with a combination of an income tax surcharge, an expansion of the state sales tax and a statewide property tax on nonresidential property.
Residents would not pay the statewide tax. But they could be subjected to a local property tax if they chose to spend more than the state provides through its basic block grant. That local tax would be levied only against residential property, which is intended to make local spending decisions immediately clear and presumably damp down spending.
Its not necessarily increasing taxes overall, Marron said. Its a shift to income and other broad-based taxes.
Changing Act 60 is a top priority for many members of the Legislature and the administration. But there are a number of other important bills that have been identified as priorities and there is certain to be movement on at least some of them this week.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. William Johnson, R-Canaan, for example, said he was reasonably confident that a consensus was emerging on his committee for a permit reform plan.
There are a number of competing proposals for speeding up the time it takes to review development projects. Johnsons committee has been spending nearly all of its time trying to craft a plan that takes all of them into account..
The House Commerce Committee and the Senate Economic Development Committee have been taking testimony on Gov. James Douglas jobs creation package. The Senate panel has been debating what, if any, changes should be made to the Vermont Economic Progress Council, which approves tax credits to companies whose expansions create new jobs.
The Commerce Committee and the Senate Natural Resources Committee also have been trying to pass bills that would encourage renewable energy through incentives and other initiatives.
A priority in the House Judiciary Committee is a bill initiated by Douglas that would enhance the penalties for drug crimes, particularly those involving heroin.
The committee was much less enthusiastic about a Douglas proposal that would have created a registry of anyone convicted of a drug crime. Neighbors of those convicts then would be notified. But the committee decided that idea was too expensive and administratively troublesome to pursue.
Burlington Free Press
TOP NEWS Sunday, March 16, 2003
Day of reckoning nears for Vermont's environmental permitting
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- Tom Tafuto's words poured out in a release of dammed-up frustration.
Vermont's environmental laws had failed his family by allowing an auto body shop to open 400 feet from his front door, the Fayston homeowner told a Statehouse hearing.
"What good is it to have state-of-the-art environmental laws, when a project this blatant can pass through the system?" he asked.
Dan Maclure, a Derby real estate broker, followed Tafuto to the microphone. He spoke more slowly but with equal depth of feeling.
"We have very little business coming into our area. Businesses tell me they're not coming here because Vermont is anti-business," he said. "Nobody wants to go through the time it takes to go through Act 250, nobody wants to deal with all the paperwork, the legal work."
Last month's Statehouse hearing capped months of increasingly fiery complaints and demands for reform of Vermont's environmental permitting system.
Once, that system was held up as a national model.
Now, developers and development opponents, business people and rural homeowners, politicians and local officials sing a chorus of criticism.
The process for approving construction of a business, a housing development or a building expansion has become too complex, lengthy, unpredictable and costly, they say.
Developers cite expensive environmental studies, redundant reviews by local and state government, delays caused by bureaucratic backlogs or determined not-in-my-backyard opponents.
Environmentalists and development opponents complain that review boards tilt toward developers, that the process is no longer citizen-friendly and that they often must play David to wealthy Goliath developers.
Gov. Jim Douglas ran on a platform that promised measurable reform. He has put business-friendly permitting near the top of his first-year priority list.
Many lawmakers also promised reform in the fall campaign. The Legislature is considering at least 14 permit reform bills. They range from tinkering with the permit system to junking whole pieces of the machinery and starting again.
As testimony at the February Statehouse hearing showed, calling for reform is one thing. Delivering will be another.
Vermonters are deeply divided on just exactly what's wrong in the permitting system, how serious those problems are and how to fix them.
There's general agreement on one point, though: the outcome of this debate matters greatly.
Vermont's environmental laws have helped clean up Lake Champlain and rivers including the Winooski, Lamoille and Connecticut.
They have preserved deeryards, wetlands, scenic vistas, mountaintops and prime farmland. They have encouraged, with mixed success, compact development that preserves open land.
But the outcome also matters because the permitting system has given Vermont a less-than-business-friendly image.
The unpredictability of the length, cost and outcome may discourage some desirable business and housing projects from ever being proposed. The system drives up the cost of housing -- unnecessarily, developers say.
Natural Resources Secretary Elizabeth McLain, primary author of Douglas' reform bill, says the alternative to reform doesn't bear considering.
"We need to make significant improvements in the process so we don't end up with an outcry for overturning the whole system of environmental protection," she said.
Douglas has outlined three goals for environmental permit reform, goals that -- in the abstract -- find nearly universal support.
Any reform, he has said, must:
-- Continue to provide strong environmental protection.
-- Make environmental reviews more timely, more predictable and less costly..
-- Keep the review process open to citizen participation.
Reformers quickly run into difficult choices because the three goals frequently conflict.
For example, robust participation by opponents of a building project nearly always results in a longer, more costly permit review with a less predictable outcome.
If a balance is struck between those two goals, should it lean toward speeding up the process or protecting citizen participation? Where is the balance between the two values at stake, environmental protection and economic growth?
Even when there is no such basic conflict, critics often cannot agree about the source of the problem and what needs most urgently to be fixed.
There are many places to look.
Vermont has a three-layered system of development review. The layers often overlap and, in some cases, offer conflicting decisions:
-- Local planning commissions and zoning boards review building projects to determine if they comply with the locally written town plan and the zoning ordinance. These reviews vary greatly. Some towns perform sophisticated reviews of everything from traffic flow to impact on wetlands. Other have no zoning ordinance at all.
-- The state Natural Resource Agency issues more than three dozen technical permits. They make sure a development doesn't violate written standards for air and water pollution, for example. Developers need a permit to alter a stream, fill certain wetlands, site a solid waste facility and more.
-- Many developments and subdivisions also need an Act 250 permit. The 1970 law is unique to Vermont and provides umbrella protection of environmental and community values.
Act 250 determines whether a development will have an undue adverse impact in 10 areas that cover Vermont's natural resources and public infrastructure like roads and schools.
Eight regional boards of laypeople review projects and a state panel of laypeople, the Environmental Board, hears appeals.
Neighbors and others who oppose a project can bring their concerns to the Act 250 commission. They can ask that a development be denied a permit, or that approval be conditioned on lessening the project's impact.
The commissions have been the scene of some titanic battles over shopping malls, ski area growth, even residential subdivisions.
Finding the problem
Act 250 draws attacks in part because it represents an additional layer of review that many states do not have.
"The reality is that Act 250 has been overtaken by a multitude of other reviews, and it has become superfluous," Kevin Dorn wrote in 2000, when he led a homebuilders' group. Today he is Commerce secretary in the Douglas administration.
But defenders of the law say it offers an important forum for residents to make sure developers protect the environment when they build.
The real problem, the law's defenders say, lies elsewhere.
For example: Local zoning boards sometimes fail to stop flawed projects.
"Part of our role is to say no when a local board doesn't want to say no to their neighbors. Then we get portrayed as the big, bad Environmental Board," said Pat Moulton Powden, Douglas' newly appointed chairman of the board.
Still others believe reform should focus on the Agency of Natural Resources permits.
Developers accuse the agency of moving too slowly and of imposing too many conditions.
Environmentalists accuse the agency of acting like a "permit mill" -- giving developers what they want out of public view in response to political pressure from above. Others say the agency simply doesn't have adequate staff to be both thorough and expeditious.
"This is an Act 250 witch hunt. Act 250 is not the problem," said Mark Sinclair of the Conservation Law Foundation. "The problem is the agency, where the public has no real voice."
Cases in point
Beginning today, the Free Press will examine five cases in which applicants or opponents have been outspoken in their complaints.
These cases demonstrate why applicants and opponents alike often end up furious with the environmental permitting system.
They show that every complaint has another side. And they illustrate the ways in which ordinary Vermonters trying to comply with the law find themselves baffled and bewildered.
Those complaints, lawmakers say, are the most troubling.
They point to people like Cathy Broderick of Lyndon Center, who recently wrote the Free Press about her inability to find out what kind of septic permit she might need for her new home.
"It makes a person want to commit hari cari or sit and cry which still doesn't solve the problem," she wrote of the contradictory answers she received from state and local officials.
Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or 229-9141 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Vermont Public Radio
Lawmakers return from recess
MONTPELIER, VT (2003-03-10)
(Host) Governor Jim Douglas is calling on lawmakers to pass an Act 250 reform bill, a comprehensive jobs package, and a short-term plan to reduce property taxes in the next few months. Lawmakers return to the Statehouse Tuesday for the second half of this year's session.
Douglas is encouraged by the progress that the House is making on Act 250 permit reform legislation. The bill is expected to be on the House floor for debate in the next two weeks. The governor says that the Senate is working hard on the jobs bill and that his drug initiative is also moving forward:
(Douglas) "Well, I'm very optimistic about several of these major initiatives passing. I think it's essential that they do in order to send a message about the new attitude in Montpelier, the openness to employers creating jobs here and in one case, in attacking the very serious drug crisis that the state is confronting."
(Host) Douglas acknowledges that the House and Senate are taking very different approaches on possible changes to Act 60, and he says resolving these differences will not be easy. The governor is hoping that the Legislature will adopt a plan to reduce the statewide property tax rate this year and then address the long -term issues with Act 60 next winter.
St. Albans Messenger
March 7, 2003
Permit forum seeks consensus
By LEE J. KAHRS
Messenger Staff Writer
ST. ALBANS úú For once, a public meeting was held on a hot topic and the public showed up. Big time.
Approximately 80 people attended the Act 250 permit reform public forum held Thursday night at the St. Albans Town Educational Center.
In addition to being well-attended by local residents, most of the Franklin County delegation, representatives of governing bodies, business, civic and industrial groups from around the county were also there.
Town administrator Dan Lindley was moderator for the meeting, which featured special guests Patricia Moulton Powden, chairperson of the Vermont Environmental Board, Elizabeth McLain, new secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and Kevin Dorn, secretary of the
Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
The reason for the forum, organized by town selectman Tayt Brooks and Lindley, was the increasing frustration and anger with the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF).
What seems to many local residents as "the last straw" was the CLF's recent request for party status in the Act 250 review of the St. Albans Town Industrial Park expansion.
The CLF is an environmental watchdog group that has challenged the expansion of the St. Albans park based on arguments that it would violate state law protecting primary agricultural soils.
The group also argues that the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation (FCIDC), which owns the park, had not sufficiently investigated the issue of clustering proposed buildings in its plan. That idea pertains to Act 250 statutes regarding the preservation of open space.
The forum was organized to discuss all aspects of the Act 250 permit reform issue, but it would not have happened if the CLF had not made its request, Lindley said.
What was seen by many as an 11th-hour move by the CLF angered project officials. A continuation of an Act 250 hearing on the matter is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on March 27 at St. Albans Town Hall.
Patricia Moulton Powden, chair of the State environmental board, stated in her opening remarks that, although she was there to listen to Act 250 permit issues, she would have to recuse herself from the forum if the specific case of the CLF and the town industrial park was discussed.
"I am unable to participate on any specific, open case, as it would compromise my position as chair of the environmental board," she said.
Most residents who approached voiced their opinions and concerns honored Moulton Powden's request, at least for a while.
Secretary Elizabeth McLain got things started by explaining, in a brief overview, the current permit reform legislation now up for discussion.
"The governor's number one concern regarding Act 250 permit reform," she said, "is that there is no negative impact on Vermont's environment and quality of life."
McLain said that there are three tenets of the permit review process: predictability, consistency and the timelines of the process.
Contained in both permit reform bills currently proposed in legislature are three main issues:
· streamlining the appeals process into one route;
· changing the standards for appeal and making them more consistent;
· and, setting requirements for involvement so that those wishing to be part of the permit process must be involved from the beginning.
The last proposal is one that most of the people attending the forum wanted approved, specifically because of the CLF's party status request regarding the town industrial park.
McLain said that, ultimately, she and her fellow board members and agency representatives were at the forum to listen and hear new ideas regarding permit reform. And, listen they did.
March 08, 2003 - 2:36:08 AM EST
Douglas backs hydro dam buy
By MICHAEL NEARY
SAXTONS RIVER -- Gov. James Douglas endorsed Rockingham's legal right to buy the sought-after hydroelectric dam at the annual dinner of the Great Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce, as he reiterated campaign criticisms of Acts 250 and 60 Friday night.
"I personally hope the legislation will allow you the option of acquiring the facility that appears to be available," he said, referring to bills in the state House and Senate. "I don't think a statutory ban should stand in your way."
Douglas's remarks came as part of a package on economic development which included pledges to help area businesses grow and to recruit new ones into the state.
"I'm prepared to spend personal time and energy to encourage companies to come here," he said.
Depicting permits as uniquely difficult to obtain in Vermont, Douglas voiced harsh criticism of Act 250. He characterized the land use act as too inviting for citizens without direct interest in projects to disrupt them.
"Only in Act 250 can anyone come in from anywhere and hold things up," he said, noting his preference for a regulatory process that required objectors to show they would "suffer direct harm" from the projects they challenge.
Douglas also criticized communications problems in the state as disincentives for business.
"I'm sure you've tried to make a cell phone call and have run into problems," he said.
Aware that Act 60 was on the minds of his listeners, Douglas briefly outlined a reform plan.
"Act 60," he began with a grin. "Have you heard of it?"
He said reform must include a sustainable formula, an immediate funding plan and property tax relief. Noting that education funding in Vermont tended to be expensive due to a low pupil-teacher ratio, he also advised a measure of frugality.
Some of Douglas's speech was touched with humor. When he recalled former Vermont education commissioner Ray McNulty's decision to take a job with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, he said, "The first thing I asked was if he could get us a big grant.
"I'm serious," he added, when the audience broke into laughter.
Bellows Falls Selectboard Chairman Lamont Barnett praised the speech -- and the governor -- after the dinner was over. He noted Douglas's support for the Powerball lottery in the region and said his support of the bills involving the dam would be instrumental in their success.
Paul Kane, a chamber member and a field superintendent with the Department of Corrections, lauded Douglas's appearance in the region.
"In the past month I've seen Gov. Douglas here more than I've ever seen Gov. Dean," he said. "Gov. Dean was a very good governor, but in the south we felt like a stepchild for a time."
Vermont Public Radio
Hopeful outlook for Act 250 reform
MONTPELIER, VT (2003-03-07)
(Host) Members of the state's environmental and business communities are expressing optimism that the Legislature will pass a meaningful Act 250 permit reform bill this year. The Douglas administration has proposed a plan that streamlines the Act 250 review process, consolidates the appeals procedures and makes changes in which groups would be eligible for party status.
Speaking Thursday night on VPR's Switchboard program, Pat Berry, who is communications director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said it's likely that his group will support permit reform as long as the proposal maintains strong public involvement in the review process and provides sufficient evaluation of key environmental concerns:
(Berry) "I feel confident that we're going to come out with something in the end that does both that and really does something to help the permit process. And because a lot of the same problems for the regulated
community are problems for the environmental community, I do think we'll come out with something if we can all be thoughtful and creative and work together on this."
(Host) Will Adams, who represents the Business Coalition for Permit Reform, says he also believes the outlook is good for some significant reforms to Act 250:
(Adams) "If you look back over the last campaign season, candidates of virtually every political stripe talked about the need to make changes to the permit process. I really think that the stars are aligned this
year. We got an administration that is dedicated, in fact it's the centerpiece of governor Douglas' legislative agenda to enact permit reform this year.."
(Host) It's likely that the House Natural Resources committee will draft an Act 250 reform bill in the next few weeks.
Burlington Free Press
LOCAL NEWS Friday, March 07, 2003
State officials get an earful on Act 250 permit delay
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
ST. ALBANS -- The fight over expansion of the St. Albans Town Industrial Park ratcheted up a notch Thursday night, when more than 70 Franklin County residents turned out to air their grievances to top state officials.
The session in the elementary school cafeteria was billed as a forum on environmental permit reform.
Most people in the audience had one main thing on their minds: their outrage that the Conservation Law Foundation is attempting to stop or modify their industrial park expansion.
CLF, an environmental watchdog group, is arguing the expansion should not receive an Act 250 land use permit because it will unnecessarily convert high-quality farmland to non-farm uses.
"How do we get rid of all this legal nonsense?" one man demanded of state Natural Resources Secretary Elizabeth McLain.
"Could CLF still do the garbage they're doing?" another man asked, after McLain explained Gov. Jim Douglas' proposals for permit reform.
"We have the support of the town, the regional planning commission, the state Agriculture Department and the project's neighbors. Now, because of CLF, we're going to go from a permit that takes 60 days, to one that takes two to three years," said Tim Smith, executive director of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corp.
Thursday night's forum was the town's latest attempt to line up support for its cause.
The town has collected several hundred signatures on a petition urging CLF to drop its opposition to the industrial park. A copy of the petition was posted in every county town on Town Meeting Day.
"The expansion is a good and necessary development in enhancing and maintaining the superior quality of life that our families enjoy," the petition reads.
McLain, Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn and Environmental Board Chairman Pat Powden listened and explained their ideas for changes in the law that would limit the role of groups like CLF in the future.
They declined to discuss the pending industrial park case and Powden -- who would hear the case if it is appealed -- left the meeting to avoid listening to arguments outside the hearing room.
Earlier in the day, CLF attorney Sandra Levine said her group was only trying to make sure regulators follow the requirements of Act 250, which protects primary agricultural soils.
"This is an example of a sprawling development that is needlessly paving over farmland," she said.
"This is a good location for an industrial park. That doesn't mean they shouldn't consider ways to make their development accommodate the natural resources that are there," she said.
McLain, Dorn and Powden promised the audience that state government is hearing their general complaints about the delays, high costs and unpredictability of the permit process.
"It's broken and we've got to fix it," said Powden.
"Hold on; help is on the way," McLain told the audience.
L E F T F I E L D
BY MICHAEL COLBY
(bi-weekly published 03.05.03)
It's looking more and more like Governor Jim Douglas has stolen a few pages from George W. Bush's political playbook. Like the president, Douglas ran for office trying to hug the middle of the political road. Once elected, however - and once again like Bush - Vermont's governor is using his honeymoon period to make a hard turn to the right.
To understand Douglas' true political intentions, all Vermonters have to do is follow the money. It's true that the governor inherited a messy economic situation, thanks in part to his buddy in the White House and his predecessor now aiming for that same job. But his budget priorities nonetheless provide a clear ideological snapshot: dramatic cuts in programs on the environment, arts and education and funding increases for commerce and the business community.
Historically, Republicans have gotten a sinister kick out of bad economic times, which provide them with political cover while they take aim at the governmental programs they despise. Reagan used the inflationary period of the 1980s to dismantle social programs; Bush is using today's tough economy to strangle social and environmental programs while miraculously finding enough government money for the military and business incentives. And he has the audacity to propose huge tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens.
Douglas seems cut from the same cloth. Consider what he is proposing for the Agency of Natural Resources. Doug-las was fairly honest about his hostility toward the ANR during his campaign - particularly for its oversight of the state's most notorious development law, Act 250. But his proposal to cut nearly 10 percent of the agency's budget still took many by surprise. Compare that to the 2 percent increase granted to the Agency of Commerce.
"The Governor campaigned on a platform to overhaul the ANR's permitting process," says Senator Susan Bartlett, chair of the Senate's Appropriations Committee. "But I don't know how he's going to accomplish that by cutting the agency's budget by 10 percent. It doesn't add up."
John Brabant, an environmental analyst with ANR since 1988, agrees with Bartlett. "They've been starving this agency for years, running the good people out and leaving positions unfilled," he told Seven Days. "We can't enforce the laws and do the necessary work at our current levels. Douglas' cuts will only speed up our death spiral."
The governor's disdain for the ANR apparently made it difficult for him to fill important positions within the agency. After the election, he turned to Elizabeth McLain, a former deputy secretary of the ANR, to help him find candidates for commissionerships and the secretary slot.
"It's not easy finding Republicans who went to college to save the environment," one administration official told Seven Days on condition of anonymity. "And it's not real enticing to take a pay cut in order to run a state agency with a bull's-eye on its back."
McLain's search for a secretary of the ANR eventually ended when she was persuaded to take the job herself. Ad-ministration insiders say McLain wasn't thrilled to discover how little freedom she had in selecting commissioners for departments that operate within ANR's domain: environmental conservation, parks and recreation, and fish and wildlife.
The Douglas team had a heavy hand, for example, in the controversial appointment of Jeffrey Wennberg to head the Department of Environmental Conservation. Endorsed by a curiously compliant Senate Natural Resources Committee last week, Wennberg's selection drew the ire of environmentalists and provided yet another ideological benchmark for the new powers-that-be in Montpelier.
Wennberg hasn't been shy about taking sides in the environment vs. development debate. He once dismissed Act 250 - the law his department is sworn to uphold - as nothing but an "environmental juggernaut." When his appointment was announced, and challenged, Douglas was hard pressed to defend the former Rutland mayor's environmental resume. The best he came up with was a "recycling ordinance," among a few other equally bland eco-accomplishments.
Many see Wennberg as Vermont's version of Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who was called in to obediently run the Environmental Protec-tion Agency as the Bush administration undermined its mission and squeezed its budget. Whitman has had to smile and defend attacks on clean air, clean water and global warming initiatives. Wennberg is being called upon to do much the same with Act 250.
In an appearance before Bartlett's Appropriations Committee last week, Wennberg didn't seem bothered by the dramatic budget cuts or the elimination of six employees. He played the good soldier and put the best spin on his odd predicament: to produce more work with fewer funds and people.
"The cuts to our budget only reflect the economic realities of the state," Wennberg told Seven Days. "If I thought I was going to be overseeing the dismantling of the department, I wouldn't have taken the job."
Senator Bartlett isn't buying it, though. "Unfortunately, it's an old trick," she says. "You bleed the agencies you don't like.
Permit reform for land and people
February 26, 2003
Vermonts environmental permit process needs reform because it has become a permits r us process for developers that fails to protect the land and the people of Vermont.
Dont believe me? Check these facts:
* The permit process has failed to prevent sprawl in Chittenden County and elsewhere in Vermont.
* The environmental agencies have failed to maintain and enforce water quality standards, with Lake Champlain and many rivers and streams in Vermont now out of compliance.
* Act 250, supposedly Vermonts toughest permit process, turns down only 1,5 percent of all applications filed.
* Under pressure from politician and developers, Act 250 rushes approximately 80 percent of applications through as minors without full review.
* Act 250 requires enormous effort and expense by affected Vermonters to participate and then forbids them from appealing to the Vermont Supreme Court, even though an out-of-state developer can file such an appeal.
Now in a time of recession many in the development community are seizing the moment to weaken the permit process more, based on the false promise of promoting the economy.
But you could repeal Act 250 and the other environmental permits tomorrow and not one IBM or Ethan Allen employee would get a job back.
Weve had Act 250 for more than 30 years, and during that time the Vermont economy has gone up and down along with the rest of the country. If the doomsayers about the permit process and economy were right, we should have been in permanent recession during the last three decades. We werent.
If we can free ourselves from the economy vs. environment delusion, we can take several actions that would give Vermont real permit reform.
First, we should turn the current politicized, citizen-hostile appeals process into an accessible and professional review, with judge-like appointment rules to promote independence. Though current proposals to consolidate permit appeals into the Environmental Court are a positive step, they recommend rather than require relevant expertise and dont make it easier for small business or average citizens to participate.
Second, we should create an office of environmental advocate, using positions freed up by appeals board consolidation. The advocate, appointed in a manner that promotes independence, would appear in every Act 250 case on behalf of the land and people of Vermont, supplying expert review and analysis. The office also would make information available to citizens so they can help themselves.
Third, where Act 250 permits are required, we should eliminate duplicative permit requirements in the Agency of Natural Resources, and instead require agency staff to supply technical recommendations to the Act 250 program. Such a change will bring the light of day to what often is backroom decision-making at the agency.
Fourth, we should target some of the existing permit specialists in the Agency of Natural Resources to small business assistance with the permit process.
Finally, we should give all parties to Act 250 cases equal rights of appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court. To have a level playing field, Vermont citizens must have the same rights in the process as those developers, whether in or out-of-state, whose projects may change their lives and communities.
Aaron Adler was counsel to the Vermont Environmental Board from 1988 to 1996.
House Democrats eye Act 250 changes
February 25, 2003
By TRACY SCHMALER Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER House Democrats jumped into the raging debate over reforming the states environmental permitting process Tuesday when they unveiled a bill that would change how those applications are reviewed.
A handful of Democrats, along with a Republican and some Progressives, have proposed a bill that would consolidate the review of permits for development projects, change the eligibility for parties that can participate, require more public notification and add new positions to the agency that oversees the review.
Our bill makes clear that we are not sweeping away the structures like the Environmental Board, like the district commissions as some of the other bills do, said Rep. Margaret Hummel, D-Underhill. Were keeping those structures in place, but trying to address the other areas where people have really had difficulty.
Streamlining the permit process to encourage economic development without weakening environmental regulations in the state was a campaign promise delivered by candidates of all political stripes last fall. And many have tried to make good on that this legislative session by proposing their solutions.
The Democrats bill is one of several that have been proposed so far.
Like other so-called permit reform measures, the bill would allow permits that are issued by the Agency of Natural Resources to satisfy criteria in a parallel review process on issues of air and water quality.
And like other bills, it would also require people interested in participating in the process who have the right to appeal a permit to meet a higher standard to become eligible.
But it differs from other proposal in that it does little to change the permit appeals process and it sets out specific standards for citizen notification.
By being proactive rather than reactive, we hope the need for appeals is lessened, said Rep. Kenneth Atkins, D-Winooski.
Atkins and other supporters said they decided to broach the problem from the front end rather than the appeals process.
In the past two legislative sessions weve tried to create one bill, an omnibus reform bill, and thats proved to be too complicated. By incorporating too many issues and trying to solve the problem with complicated solutions we created bills that were not viable in one session, he said.
The Democrats bill also differs from other proposals by others, including Gov. James Douglas, in that it would:
n Require uniform standards for public involvement in all review processes to allow for citizen participation.
n Add two new staff positions a development permit specialist and a permit manager at a cost of $130,000.
n Prohibits the agency from issuing a permit that would lead to or worsen a violation of water quality standards.
n Create a commission to review all permits required for development in the state and report back to the Legislature in 2005.
We believe our bill makes a modest effort toward anteing up the resources needed to do the job, Hummel said.
The measure is one of a handful that has taken aim at changing the way the state grants permit for development projects.
Douglas has his own proposal that would also consolidate review criteria that is now redundant. But his bill calls for a broader overhaul of the entire process. He has proposed consolidating the appeals process so that all appeals are heard by the Environmental Court and requiring parties who want to appeal to meet a higher standard that is currently in place.
Douglas proposal effectively removes the authority now held by the Environmental Board, which reviews the appeals of Act 250 permits. Those appeals, as well as appeals now reviewed by other entities including the Water Resources Board, the Waste Facility Panel and the Air and Solid Waste Variance Board, would be channeled to the court, according to his proposal.
Several business groups, including the Vermont Ski Areas Association, the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., have backed the Douglas plan.
Meanwhile, a coalition of business groups including the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont Association of Realtors, the Home Builders Association of Northern Vermont and the National Federation of Independent Business, has drafted its own overhaul of the permit system.
There are some similarities between the coalitions bill and Douglas proposal, including the move to consolidate appeals before a judicial court, make changes to criteria for party status, and allow agency permits to satisfy Act 250 criteria without separate review.
The business groups proposal, however, calls for a three-court panel to hear appeals, and would eliminate entirely the Environmental Board. That bill also proposes to replace the nine district commissions with new panels made up of local and regional planning and development representatives where the project is being proposed.
Legislative committees have been reviewing the various proposals in recent weeks. Leaders in both the House and the Senate say they hope to pass some measure this session.
Contact Tracy Schmaler at email@example.com.
Burlington Free Press
Commentary Wednesday, February 26, 2003
Douglas' permit reform makes sense for Vermont
The Burlington Free Press editorial, "New strategy needed," Feb. 23, is unfortunately off the mark in its assessment of how the governor's permit reform proposal was developed.
Throughout the 2002 campaign, Gov. Jim Douglas spoke of the need for significant reform to the state's permitting system while maintaining the high environmental standards we all demand, and he promised to produce a bill within his first 100 days. The voters responded by electing him to office, and he kept his promise to them.
When the governor appointed me Natural Resources secretary and Kevin Dorn as secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, he charged us with developing a plan that would live up to his "Third Way" approach of increasing job opportunities for struggling Vermont families while protecting our cherished natural environment. The governor knows, as he said in his inaugural address, "the choice we face today is not a choice between jobs or the environment. It is a choice between both or neither."
As self-evident as this statement is to so many of us, it is still a new guiding philosophy for a state that has spent too much time pitted against itself.
In developing the reform proposal, Secretary Dorn and I met and spoke with representatives of environmental and business groups (including the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, the two groups mentioned in the editorial), advocates, administrators of the process, legislators and former legislators, and interested citizens. We were on TV, the radio and in the newspaper asking for input, and we got it -- lots of it -- and it was great.
The result is a common-sense reform plan that has incorporated these informed opinions to bring simplicity, consistency and timeliness to our permit process without sacrificing environmental protection. Accordingly, no Act 250 criteria are changed and no environmental standards are weakened.
The governor's plan protects and enhances opportunities for broad public participation; consolidates appeals from the multiple forums to a single court; encourages early involvement and ends costly and time-consuming appeal-level ambushes by special interest groups designed to derail projects at the last minute; and it removes unnecessary duplication.
No one can justly argue that we did not solicit ideas from others. Not only is that a red herring, it is just plain wrong. In fact, one of the significant reforms in the governor's bill -- subjecting appeals to the same rules as appeals of other non-criminal matters -- was a recommendation we adopted from Elizabeth Courtney at the VNRC after one of my discussions with her. It seems the Free Press has bought into unfair and unjustified criticism.
Will our plan make everyone happy? No. Almost by definition, the Third Way is unsatisfying to the extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. They want it their way, or no way.
The governor has introduced a balanced approach. Those who are generally satisfied with the status quo have said it goes too far; others have said it does not go far enough. To me, and most moderate Vermonters, the governor's plan is just about right.
Is there room for improvement? Probably. That is what the legislative process is all about. This is a time for more public discussion, debate and analysis. The governor's bill represents, as another major Vermont newspaper editorialized, "A good start." Anyone truly interested in putting politics aside and improving the system will find Douglas' plan encouraging.
Moreover, there are other elements of reform, as the Free Press rightly points out, that need to be addressed -- from local planning and permitting to rulemaking at all levels -- and some of those efforts are being acted on separately from the governor's proposal. The administration looks forward to improvement on these fronts as well, not instead of permit process reform, but in addition to it.
The time is right for substantive permit reform. Douglas has committed himself to reform and many legislators of all political parties promised real reform during their own campaigns. The governor has shown leadership by introducing a thoughtful bill that is the product of numerous discussions with diverse interests. He has given Vermonters, for the first time in more than a decade, real hope for progress.
Elizabeth "Wibs" McLain is secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources
Burlington Free Press
EDITORIAL Tuesday, February 25, 2003
The Douglas administration might be falling into an old Vermont habit of over-promising and under-delivering. After pledging to rebuild the state's creaky permit process, Gov. Jim Douglas proposes to cut the budget of the state agency responsible for enforcing many environmental laws.
Jeffrey Wennberg, the new state environmental conservation commissioner, told state legislators last week that he was eliminating six positions from his department, primarily through attrition.
The Environmental Conservation Department was in the news a year or so ago following the revelation that earlier budget cuts had left the agency shorthanded and with a backlog of more than 1,000 expired stormwater permits. The Dean administration transferred some workers to deal with the immediate permit situation, but the incident was widely seen as another example of the state failing to enforce its own laws and regulations.
The conservation department has 270 employees to oversee a variety of permit programs and supervise landfills, public water supplies and air quality issues. Wennberg said the department suffers from chronic budget problems that must be repaired.
It's easy for the Legislature or governor to mandate a new environmental program. The initial decision usually receives wide attention and often earns its sponsors considerable praise.
But the nitty-gritty work of cleaning up pollution in Vermont and preventing further damage to the state's landscape is incredibly expensive and labor intensive. It also can generate considerable political controversy. That's why state political leaders have often preferred to talk a tough line on environmental protection rather than ante up resources adequate to do the job.
Vermont needs a modern, efficient permitting system, one that is both predictable and well managed. Most important, people planning projects that will affect the Vermont environment should have no doubt that the state is serious about its own rules and regulations -- that the state behaves like a watchdog and not a bureaucratic paper tiger.
The Legislature still has far to go before approving the Environmental Conservation Department budget. It would be false economy to weaken the department and cut the number of front-long troops defending the state's natural heritage.
State expects to eliminate 6 jobs in environment agency
By Associated Press, 2/24/2003 10:25
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) Six jobs would be eliminated from the state's Environmental Conservation Department under the budget proposed by Gov. James Douglas' administration.
Jeffrey Wennberg, the new environmental conservation commissioner, told lawmakers last week that the department's budget is not sustainable in the years ahead.
The department runs a host of permit programs and oversees landfills, public water supplies, and air quality review.
It's also short of staff and money, which some say contributes to a backlog in the permit reviews.
Although the Douglas administration has made permit reform a top priority, it plans to cut department staff next year. Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg outlined the problem before a Senate committee on Friday.
''The department budget projects for fiscal year 2004 a net reduction of six full-time positions in the department over the current staffing levels,'' he said.
The department now has about 270 employees. In the current fiscal year, there won't be any layoffs. But nine positions will be left vacant. Wennberg said one of his main jobs is to fix the chronic budget problems in the department.
''Because, quite frankly, the budget, the '04 budget that's being presented, is not sustainable,'' he said. ''It is a stopgap, that's all there is to it. And the department must be put on a revenue and expenditure basis that is sustainable for the foreseeable future.''
The department has transferred people to handle a backlog of more than 1,000 expired stormwater permits around the state. But moving those employees will leave nine other positions vacant.
Sen. Jim Condos, D-Chittenden, questioned how Douglas can make good on his promise to reform the permit process with fewer people to do the job.
''It's interesting that we talk about improving the process yet, I'm not sure how we do that while at the same time cutting funds,'' he said. ''And cutting staffing, I think, compounds that problem as well.''
Wennberg, who is a former mayor Rutland, told the committee he's also trying to reshape the department so it's more focused on the customer, including cities and towns. He says he'll come back to the Legislature this week with a more detailed analysis of the budget issues.
Burlington Free Press
EDITORIAL Sunday, February 23, 2003
New strategy needed
Gov. Jim Douglas has become his own worst enemy in his priority issue of reinventing Vermont's permitting process. The governor's go-it-alone approach on Act 250 and refusal to work collaboratively with business and environmental groups ensures that his goal to revamp the state land-use law will languish in the Legislature.
At the start of the 2003 General Assembly, the alignment was ideal for substantive progress on permit reform. Building on last year's cooperative effort between the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont Natural Resources Council on stormwater legislation, business and environmental leaders planned the same strategy to help rewrite Act 250.
The vehicle was there. Months of hard work and even harder listening among frequent adversaries had generated a large measure of mutual trust and general agreement on many Act 250 points. All Douglas had to do was get in and turn the key.
If Douglas had simply told the two groups to draft a compromise Act 250 plan that he could embrace, the governor might be close to a significant political victory without doing much heavy legislating.
Instead, without soliciting ideas from environmental organizations or trying to bring Vermonters together to resolve Act 250 problems, the governor earlier this month presented his own permit revisions. The Natural Resources Council vigorously opposes much of Douglas' plan, likely dooming the measure in a deeply divided Legislature and aggravating growing suspicions about the governor's environmental intentions.
Most of Douglas' bill reflects familiar demands by developers to limit public involvement in the permit process, consolidate some of the bureaucratic paperwork and consolidate appeals of permits in a single place.
A big question surrounding Act 250 is the law's true effect on economic development in Vermont. In many respects, Act 250 has become a convenient whipping boy for a variety of complaints about land-use decisions that have no connection to the state statute.
In their discussions, environmental and business leaders agreed that, while some changes in Act 250 were needed, a major problem in Vermont is lousy planning at the local level. More than half of the towns in Vermont, for example, have no comprehensive zoning regulations. In effect, Act 250 has become a default planning tool for communities that don't want the hassle of preparing their own land-use plans.
Likewise, many gripes that get tagged to Act 250 actually should be directed at state and federal air and water quality and other environmental rules.
After almost a decade of controversy that has left many Vermonters more confused than enlightened over Act 250, the state needed a debate over permitting led by people who recognize that, as Douglas said in his inaugural address, the choice isn't between the economy and the environment, but "between both or neither."
Good things can happen if all sides cooperate on Act 250. Nothing good will happen if they don't.
Consensus-building leadership by the governor could make all the difference..
February 20, 2003
Letters to Editor
Douglas making matters worse
In his inaugural address, Jim Douglas suggested that there was a third way in which to balance the interests between development and environmental concerns. Though vague, this was and is a laudable concept where inclusion rather than acrimony might prevail in the regulatory process.
Unfortunately, this third way quickly evaporated in the very dawn of his administration as controversial appointments were made to key regulatory positions and legislation was advanced to the state Legislature to modify Act 250 with zero input from the citizenry. I guess talk of a third way was just that, and instead we have this transparent illustration of an unspoken agenda that is anything but inclusive.
The sad thing is that there was a historic opportunity to do just what the governor proposed. The time was ripe to build something better which balanced the very legitimate concerns of both sides of this issue. There could have been a new paradigm for the future of growth in Vermont. Instead, Jim Douglas appears to be the governor of the Chambers of Commerce, the corporate lobby and the Republican Party, rather than the governor of all Vermonters. He recognized a serious problem, spoke of a solution, but instead has made matters worse.
St. Albans Messenger
February 15, 2003
Area lawmakers sign on to '250' reform
Bill puts end to boards, eliminates party status
"There aren't many Democrats who are willing to step up ..." - Joe Sinagra, HRA official.
By LEE J. KAHRS
Messenger Staff Writer
ST. ALBANS -- Franklin County legislators have put their signatures where their mouths are when it comes to Act 250 permit reform.
Four local House members -- three Republicans and one Democrat -- and one of the county's two Democratic senators are backing legislation that would drastically change the state review law.
If the sweeping changes are fully adopted the district environmental commissions and environmental board would be abolished, party status would be eliminated, and a single panel would handle appeals.
Governor Jim Douglas was not the only candidate in last year's election to run on the issue of Act 250 permit reform. Many local candidates did the same, including freshman Senator Don Collins, D-Franklin County.
The new governor recently addressed his ideas for a permit reform bill. What many people may not know is that there is another permit reform bill out there, and just last week, it was officially introduced in the legislature.
The Senate bill, S.71, was signed by four senators, three of whom are Republican. Senator Collins was the only Democrat to sign.
The House bill, H.169, was signed by 32 representatives, including Rep. Dick Howrigan, D-Fairfield, Rep. Alan Parent, R-St. Albans City, Rep. John Winters, R-Swanton, and Rep. Brian Dunsmore, R-Georgia.
The bill is a result of a year-long effort by the Vermont chapter of the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association (HRA), the Vermont Association of Realtors, and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont Ski Areas Association also were involved.
The HRA is a national trade organization comprised not only of homebuilders and remodelers, but also real estate agents, banks, and other organizations with a vested interest in the business of development. The association was chartered in 1957 and currently has 350 members located in Northern Vermont.
Joe Sinagra is the government affairs director for the Vermont chapter of the HRA and a St. Albans resident. He said that after the bill was drafted last summer, the HRA approached every House, Senate and gubernatorial candidate and gave them a copy.
Once the elections were over, the HRA began educating the elected senators, representatives, and Governor Douglas about the proposed bill. After those discussions took place, the HRA asked legislators if they would sponsor it.
Sinagra made an important distinction regarding that sponsorship.
"By signing their names to the bill," he said, "the legislators are not signing on to every aspect of the bill. They're signing on to say we need reform."
Sinagra said his organization's objective in drafting the bill was clear.
"A year ago," he said, "We set a goal to come up with legislation to reform and streamline the permit process."
Sinagra said that, by doing so, they hope to make the permit process easier for applicants to navigate and allow for more citizen participation.
There are four cornerstones of the HRA bill or, the "Modern Permitting Process for Vermont." They deal with simplifying the permit review and appeals process, and enhancing enforcement of permit compliance.
The most drastic change to the permit process as outlined in the HRA bill is the dissolution of the district environmental commissions and the environmental board. The bill proposes one, five-member commission which would review the entire range of local issues and formerly Act 250 criteria into one consolidated process and set of hearings.
This panel, called the Development Review Commission, would be comprised of three members from the host community, appointed from the Development Review Board or Zoning Board of Adjustment. There would also be one member appointed by the regional planning commission and one member appointed by the regional economic development authority.
According to the proposed bill, "the value of such a review is that a common review body hears all of the issues rather than the current situation where local desires and interests are often in conflict with another review body's agenda and interests."
The bill makes a point of stating that all local issues, as well as current Act 250 criteria, will continue to be reviewed. The review will just be more consolidated.
Another aspect of the bill is to create a single appeals panel. Currently, appeals can be heard by many different entities, including the environmental court, the environmental board, the water resources board or local district environmental commissions.
The HRA bill describes the new panel as a "reconstituted version of today's environmental court." It would be comprised of three Superior Court judges working full-time handling only environmental permitting and enforcing actions.
In order to prevent what Sinagra calls a "monopoly of pro or anti- development," judges would rotate on and off the each year, with one judge joining and one judge leaving each year.
Party status would be eliminated. In it's place, Sinagra said, potential appellants to a permit process would have to be involved from the beginning. The following questions are in the proposed bill to determine if an appellant meets the new requirements to participate in permit proceedings:
Can the prospective appellant prove that his/her interests will be affected?
Can the prospective appellant prove that he/she participated in the hearings before the Development Review Commission?
Did the prospective appellant actually make his/her concerns known before the Development Review Commission?
Sinagra said these appeal reforms will help prevent "eleventh hour" party status requests.
"You will have to state your case up front, on the record, be it informally, at the public hearing early on in the process," he said.
Sinagra said this will benefit the applicants tremendously.
"It helps the applicant," he said, "It answers, 'Who do I need to bring with me to the appeal hearing?'" And it helped them know who is appealing them."
The HRA bill also suggests there be no change to the science-based permits an applicant may need to obtain from the Agency of Natural Resources. These permits usually deal with air or water related issues. However, the bill states that, once the ANR has issued a required permit, the issue in question is concluded.
"The applicant would not be required to rehash the same issues before an Act 250 commission, which uses a different and far more subjective standard for review."
The other key piece of the bill's "Modern Permitting Process" is enforcement. The bill states that "it is widely perceived that Vermont maintains a massive, costly, up-front permitting process and bureaucracy while allocating little to enforcement."
The HRA bill asserts that, because the proposed efficiencies will reduce the time and resource expenditures, some emphasis should be shifted to enforcing the provisions of permits granted. The bill proposes random permit audits coupled with penalties "that have some teeth" for non-compliance.
Sinagra is extremely pleased with the support Franklin County legislators have shown by signing the HRA bill, particularly Senator Collins.
"He ran on permit reform," Sinagra said, "There aren't many Democrats who are willing to step up and put their name on a permit reform bill."
When asked why he thinks that is, Sinagra cited basic partisan politics.
"Some senate Democrats have been reluctant," he said, They see our bill as a gutting of Act 250."
Pressed for more specifics as to why those Democrats won't sign, Sinagra said simply, "It wasn't their idea, so they won't support it."
As for Collins, Sinagra said, "Thankfully, Don Collins is helping not to make this partisan."
The senator was not available for comment by press time.
The HRA bill and the permit reform bill Governor Douglas is supporting are very similar, but there are key differences.
The Governor's bill leaves the basic zoning and Act 250 review process in tact and seeks to reform just the appeals process. It calls for a panel of two judges, rather than three, to the appeals panel.
We support the Governor's bill," Sinagra said, "We just don't feel it goes far enough."
Vermont's land use permitting process was developed in the early 1970's to combat the unregulated growth and environmental impact of commercial and residential development. It was also geared to give average, Vermont citizens a voice in how their communities grow.
Over the years, the process has become increasingly complex. Numerous sub-criteria have been added to the original 10 criteria of Act 250. Applicants and those granted party status in each permit process must endure an extensive review process which can involve many different local and regional boards, as well as state and federal agencies. There has been no major overhaul of Act 250 in the 30 years since it was initially signed into law.
The Champlain Channel
Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Act 250 Reform
It's time to change Act 250.
Vermont Governor Jim Douglas said he'd change Vermont's regulatory system. Now he's keeping his word.
Douglas wants the legislature to cut the red tape, make permitting easier, and give businesses some hope they might find a home in the Green Mountain State.
* He'd eliminate the Water Resources Board.
* Get the Environmental Board out of the permit appeals process.
* Consolidate appeals into an Environmental Appeals Court, and redefine who can file appeals.
* Eliminate duplication of reviews. For example, if the Agency of Natural Resources is reviewing water quality and air pollution issues, there wouldn't be an Act 250 review.
Make no mistake: There will be a battle royal over these ideas in Montpelier. Business leaders say the plan will help bring jobs and eliminate duplication. Environmentalists worry citizen participation will be lost and the environment threatened.
We think the Governor's on the right track.
That's our opinion. What's yours?
Aired by President/General Manager Paul A. Sands
Fixing Act 250
Montpelier, Vermont - February 10, 2003
Governor James Douglas is again making the push for permit reform. Douglas took his message to the annual meeting of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce Monday in Saint Johnsbury. Douglas unveiled his permit reform legislation last week in Montpelier and now he is selling it on the road. "I have heard stories day in and day out about employers hoping to expand and create jobs being delayed for years in some cases, certainly months working to get through their permits others find out at the end of the process their efforts were in vain others vowed they would never do it again because what they have experienced, said Douglas to more than 300 chamber members.
Part of the Douglas plan would consolidate a handful of appeal boards and let an environmental court judge hear Act 250 land use appeals. Those who would want to be a player in a project decision would also have to be at the table from the start and not come in at the "11th hour" according to the Governor.
Douglas Assures Anti-Sprawl Advocates
Montpelier, Vermont -- February 11, 2003
The Vermont Forum on Sprawl took its agenda to governor Jim Douglas on Tuesday, its leaders not quite sure of what kind of reception they would get. Douglas wants to spur economic growth and job development. Will his agenda clash with theirs?
Apparently not, at least on the basics. Sprawl chairman John Ewing, along with members Beth Humstone and Paul Bruhn, met privately with the governor for twenty minutes to sound out their prospects with the new administration. Afterward Douglas told Channel 3 he warned the group not to expect additional tax credits over and beyond those that came with last year's passage of the Downtown bill, designed to steer development away from suburban sprawl.
"It's a tough year to enhance tax credits or incentives because of the budget stress," Douglas said, "and the folks from the Forum on Sprawl understand this will take time."
But there is some money. Douglas included $800,000 in the capital budget for downtown transportation projects, and he's looking for more. He said, "I'm approaching the federal government to get some funds for brownfields reclamation that will help us reclaim some industrial sites in downtown areas for business development. And I think that will be very positive."
The governor and sprawl opponents agree on the need to preserve open spaces and Vermont's agricultural base. They disagree on the need for the Circ highway. Douglas wants to jump start the long-delayed next phase of the road. The forum on sprawl wants another study of the Circ's impact on growth and more spending on transportation alternatives, including the soon-to-be discontinued Champlain Flyer.
"We have concerns about what the future of commuter rail is in the state," Humstone said, "what the future of transit is in the state, pedestrian and bike transportation. And I know it's tough economic times but we really feel that those investments in the long run will be extremely helpful."
Tough economic times dictate a certain amount of disappointment for the forum on sprawl and just about every other advocacy group hoping for financial favors from Montpelier. Gov. Douglas, like gov. Dean did last year, left a downtown reinvestment fund UN-funded, one of several programs that will have to wait for better times.
Burlington Free Press
BUSINESS Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Groups tackle permitting process
By Sue Robinson
Free Press Staff Writer
Soldiers in two often warring camps -- businesses and environmentalists -- are marching arm-in-arm into the Statehouse and town halls with joint recommendations on how to ease the contentious permitting process.
These groups agree that growth would need to be centered in the state's downtowns, and state and local governments would need to help pay for that growth.
The collaboration comes as Act 250, Vermont's development control law, comes under scrutiny in the Legislature. Those involved hope the recommendations will be a map to compromise in reforming the law.
The project led by the Vermont Business Roundtable and the Vermont Forum on Sprawl took 3 years, culminating in a report due out at the beginning of March. The report depicts five growth models for South Burlington, Bennington and Waterbury. The models lay out where hotels, stores, parking, even daycare centers should go.
The recommendations range from educating town planning officials on "smart-growth strategies," to reforming the Act 250 permitting process, to expanding state and federal downtown improvements and affordable housing programs, Roundtable President Lisa Ventriss said.
In August 1999, the then-year-old Vermont Forum On Sprawl wanted to guide development toward Vermont's downtowns to limit sprawl.
"We thought the best way to find that out was a partnership with businesses," said Beth Humstone, executive director of the Forum on Sprawl.
The roundtable was game. In all, 75 people from both groups as well as town and state officials, the Conservation Law Foundation, local citizen groups, architects, developers and others took part in committees and town forums.
Three sites were chosen: roughly 350,000 square feet, including the half-vacant Kmart plaza in South Burlington, 6.45 acres containing seven buildings and vacant space in Bennington, and 40 acres of trees, fields and empty buildings in Waterbury, Ventriss said.
The South Burlington models include a department store or a 90-room hotel/conference center surrounded by a mix of shops with apartments on the upper levels. In the center of the parcel would be a parking garage and park.
The owner of the Waterbury land loves that town's model for single-family houses, two apartment buildings, two three-story office/apartment complexes, two stories of corporate headquarters, a two-story parking garage and a recreation center in the center of town, said Stephen Van Esen, partner with Pilgrim Partnership LLC.
He has worked for six months to push through a 7,200-square-foot commercial building in that parcel, with little success.
"We are going in the same direction, which means housing, more commercial growth, more jobs and more people taking advantage of what there is here," he said of the groups' plan.
The major problem: Redeveloping urban areas with limited parking can be 75 percent more expensive than building in new spaces, according to a Forum On Sprawl report.
"Federal money isn't exactly flying around these days and state budgets are tight so it would take a really creative partnership to fund some of these initiatives," said Jeff Davis, a developer involved with Taft Corners in Williston, who was not part of the project.
Ventriss admitted many of the recommendations would be expensive but declined to detail the costs that the group's consultants estimated. She cautioned people from latching onto the models as the end-all plan for growth. The models cannot be implemented without major changes in funding, education, training, permitting, planning and legislation at both the local and state level, she said.
Staige Davis, Lang Associates president and a vice chairman of the roundtable, hoped the report will meld the two extremes of the development debate.
"Montpelier can ignore one side or the other, but it's kind of hard to ignore both sides who are singing the same tune and holding hands," Davis said.
Tuesday, February 11, 2003
Bennington Banner, Editorial
Permit reform to protect all interests
Permit reform is clearly the issue du jour across Vermont.
More than 100 people packed the statehouse last week to testify about their experiences with the state's environmental laws. Vermont Public Radio's Switchboard broadcast in Manchester drew comments from callers and audience members - not wanting to talk Act 60 as panelists predicted - but permit reform and its effects on the woefully poor economic conditions in Vermont.
Gov. James Douglas unveiled "sweeping permit reform" proposals that quickly split business and environmental groups.
It's time for the pendulum to swing back toward business and the governor is right to take steps to make the process easier and predictable - two code words environmentalists fear will lead to clear-cutting Vermont.
Hyperbole doesn't serve environmentalists well in these times. The state economy is a bipartisan issue; how to create jobs and a sustainable future is likewise a common goal. There is a viable middle ground.
The regulatory system must preserve Vermont's pristine environment; the governor knows that. But it must also serve business owners who provide jobs and livelihood for all of us.
As the Act 250 debate ensues over this legislative session, let's hope moderate heads prevail. The governor calls his proposal, not an either-or proposition, but rather an alternative that preserves the best of both worlds. We hate to say the word "compromise," but sometimes, that's what works. We look forward to seeing how the governor's proposal plays out.
Burlington Free Press
LOCAL NEWS Monday, February 10, 2003
Stars aligned for Act 250 change
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
Politicians come and go at the Statehouse, but the issues -- and the lobbyists -- remain.
Nine years ago this winter, Elizabeth Courtney sat at the center of a battle over Act 250, Vermont's development control law. Then, irate Republicans dumped her from chairmanship of the Environmental Board.
Nine years ago this winter, Chuck Nichols of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce was lobbying, unsuccessfully, for major changes in Act 250 itself.
Fast forward to 2003. Complaints about Act 250 have returned to center stage. Gov. Howard Dean and the other politicians who dominated the debate in the 1990s have moved on but Courtney and Nichols are still at the table.
Courtney's job has changed -- she now leads the Vermont Natural Resources Council -- but she's back on the defensive, fighting off changes she believes will damage Act 250 and the environment.
Nichols still lobbies for the chamber on energy and environmental issues. He still is pressing for major Act 250 changes he believes would make the permit system more rational, more predictable and less costly.
Courtney and Nichols agree on little about Act 250, but they have learned similar lessons about what drives shifts in public policy: economic and political cycles outside the Statehouse.
They offer an identical political diagnosis of the move toward permit reform.
"The stars are aligned for something big to happen on Act 250," Courtney said.
"The stars weren't in alignment then," Nichols said of earlier attempts to rewrite the permit process. "Now I think they are."
Complaints about Act 250 last reached a crescendo in the early 1990s when, as now, Vermont was struggling out of recession. Then, as now, the state was bleeding manufacturing jobs. Economic uncertainty had the public on edge and increased the stress on businesses.
Then, as now, Republicans found themselves suddenly with their hands on the levers of power. In 1994, Republicans controlled the state Senate and thus the power to confirm Courtney's reappointment as chairwoman of the Environmental Board.
They turned her down, twice, in a battle that made headlines across Vermont. The decision sent a message, they said, about the business community's frustration with delays, costs and bureaucratic overreaching in the permit process.
Today, those who wish to make it easier to obtain environmental permits say their political position is even stronger.
Complaints about the permit process -- its length, redundancy and cost -- haven't abated. The economy has drawn new political attention to those concerns.
Gov. Jim Douglas made changes in Act 250 a central promise of his campaign. So did dozens of House and Senate candidates of both parties.
Republicans won control of the governorship and maintained their hold on the House.
Last week, House members introduced a bill Nichols helped draft, dismantling the 30-year-old apparatus of Act 250, removing some environmental standards from the law, and creating a new environmental review system.
Nichols almost dares to be optimistic that this time he'll win at least a piece of the prize.
"In 13 years, this is the first time we've introduced a bill," he said. "Most of the time we've just had to be opposed to something someone else is doing."
"You have this growing pot of regulation" that upsets people, he said. "It's bubbling, bubbling, bubbling until it finally bubbles over and you get action."
He's also been in Montpelier long enough to know that the wave of momentum can crash on the granite of legislative politics. Are the stars truly in alignment?
"Ask me again in May," he said.
February 9, 2003
Collision with politics
Act 250 was blamed for C&Ss departure, but ironically the law served both company and community
By JOYCE MARCEL
When the environmental community collided with commerce in Brattleboro 10 years ago, it created a drama that is in some ways still shaking the state.
The last scene was staged last spring, when one of the protagonists, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc. Vermont's largest business and the 14th-largest private company in the country, according to Forbes Magazine announced that it was moving its corporate headquarters from Brattleboro to Keene, N.H.
"It was only a matter of time," said an unhappy letter writer in the Brattleboro Reformer, who blamed C&S's departure on Vermont's land-use planning law, Act 250, and "environmental terrorists."
Under Act 250, developers and businesses surrender some of their property rights to the public interest. C&S isn't the only company that has had trouble with the law Wal-Mart and OMYA, Inc. are two other such companies. But the C&S story is a textbook case in fact, it was the subject of a Harvard case study of what happens when the desires of many in a community conflict with the forces of the free market.
One of the story's ironies is that the battle wasnt fought over a rolling hillside or a pristine forest. Rather, it was fought over a strip shopping center on the outskirts of town. Another irony is that C&S spent about $1 million fighting to build a huge warehouse in a spot that turned out to be more wrong for the company than for the community.
In a strange way, Act 250 seems to have worked for both the company and the environmentalists in Brattleboro. C&S built its warehouse on a better site closer to its market (albeit out of Vermont) and kept on growing. A warehouse deemed appropriate to the Vermont site was built by another company. The shopping strip remained family-friendly and relatively free of the tractor-trailer traffic that had so upset some residents. Possibly the only loser was Act 250 itself, because its opponents seized on this case as an example of everything they feel is wrong with the law. A closer look suggests a different story.
C&S is one of Vermont's most interesting, successful and secretive companies. Its president and CEO, Richard B. Cohen, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is the third generation of his family to run the business.. Relatively young, hard-driving and elegantly tailored, he has guided his company through year after year of explosive growth. In 1992, sales had just doubled to $2 billion a year. This year, they should top $9.5 billion.
Cohen's grandfather, Israel Cohen, the original "C" in C&S, started the business in Massachusetts in 1918. His partner, Abraham Siegal, the original "S," was bought out in 1921. The company moved to Brattleboro in 1981.
The company buys groceries from all over the world. They are trucked by vendors to C&S warehouses in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. There they are unloaded, stacked and stored. As orders are received, the groceries are collected and loaded again, this time into C&S-contracted trucks, and shipped to more than 1,700 grocery stores and supermarkets across the northeastern United States.
As with many dramas, this one started quietly. In 1992, with business expanding rapidly, C&S needed a new refrigerated warehouse. The company's headquarters and main warehouse are in an industrial area on Old Ferry Road, off Route 5 in Brattleboro and just north of a busy intersection where Exit 3 of Interstate 91 connects with routes 9 and 5. With no room to expand on Old Ferry Road, the company turned to a 61.4-acre property it had bought in 1988 for $1.1 million in the undeveloped Southern Vermont Industrial Park (SVIP) on Technology Drive.
C&S wanted to build a 202,000-square-foot warehouse to store meat, dairy products and produce. The warehouse promised 360 new jobs within the next four years and about $68,800 a year in school taxes. It would operate seven days a week, receive tractor-trailer trucks full of groceries for at least 20 hours a day, and could generate up to 600 tractor-trailer trips and about 836 car trips a day.
Thrilled town officials quickly approved the plan. And so C&S turned its attention to Act 250.
Act 250's 10 criteria cover a project's environmental impact, its effect on the existing infrastructure, traffic, conformance with local planning, and the impact on community growth. Permit applications are made to one of nine district commissions around the state. Each district commission consists of three volunteer commissioners appointed by the governor. Above the commissions sits the nine-member Environmental Board, with a full-time chairperson and a legal counsel. The board makes Act 250 policy and hears appeals.
Act 250 was not created to balance economic development with environmental concerns, but to try to protect Vermont and Vermonters from ill-planned development projects.
"One of the beauties of Act 250 is that it gives Vermonters a voice in major development projects in Vermont," said former Environmental Board chairwoman Marcy Harding, who was recently replaced by Vermonts new governor, James Douglas.
Although it is frequently attacked as an anti-growth law, it is generally recognized as a workable law that has served the state in both good and bad economic times. A national study in 2000 by the Institute for Southern Studies in North Carolina, for example, listed Vermont as one of the top six states in both economic and environmental health.
Few Act 250 projects are turned down; most applicants try to mitigate possible flaws in their plans before they even apply. For example, a business that wants to build a warehouse close to a scenic section of the interstate might offer to hide the building behind a berm and to keep its signs low-key. Few Act 250 hearings stretch out over a year, or become the circus that the C&S hearings eventually became.
C&S already had experience with the state and local permit process it had been granted several because of its property on Old Ferry Road (an industrial area where C&Ss headquarters and warehouse peacefully co-exist with some corporate offices, a lumber yard, a recycling center and a former landfill). In 1990, the company wanted to build a 450,000-square-foot warehouse at the SVIP, but it withdrew the proposal when local, regional and state officials expressed concern over the size of the project. That same year the company also sought a permit to build a recreational dock on the West River for kayaking.
So the company was familiar with the process when it submitted its application for the new, but smaller, warehouse permit at SVIP. The project was smaller, but the proposal itself was big. It came in the form of five light-blue bound volumes that weighed nearly nine pounds.
If the project had been planned for Old Ferry Road, it might be quietly operating today. But even though the SVIP was an industrial park, it seemed to be the wrong one for this particular warehouse.
The SVIP can be reached only by the Putney Road section of Route 5, one of Brattleboro's main strip shopping centers. Supermarkets, banks, restaurants, doctors, veterinary clinics, hairdressers, car repair shops, fast food restaurants, a bowling alley and a multiplex cinema are located there. It's the only corridor between the market town of Brattleboro and the neighboring bedroom towns of Dummerston, Putney and Westminster West.
Back then, traffic on Putney Road was a big issue. The busy Exit 3 intersection was considered accident-prone, and here was C&S talking about the possibility of as many as 600 tractor-trailers a day and lots of cars. One uncomfortable fact of life for the trucking industry, which pays high road taxes and moves almost all the food and consumer goods in the country, is that many people don't like driving near tractor-trailers. The sheer size, noise, speed and wind shear of big trucks can be frightening. Also, even when parked, refrigerated trucks have to idle their engines to keep their cooling units working. That makes air pollution a concern.
Trucks are a hard sell.
At first it came down to common sense. C&S's traffic experts were saying that once C&S installed a traffic light where Technology Drive joined Putney Road, the trucks would actually "improve" the traffic flow. Eyebrows all over town started to raise.
C&S seemed to bend over backward to allay the community's concerns. It tried to organize its employees into car-pools to reduce congestion. Its traffic experts set up a one-day trial with 39 tractor-trailers running north and south on Putney Road. They also created a colorful video of traffic moving smoothly on Putney Road.
But as residents learned more about the project, they became more concerned.. By the end of the District II Environmental Commission hearings six hearings over five months, often in front of packed houses a group, Windham Citizens for Responsible Growth, had formed, raised money, hired an attorney and won the right to air its concerns. The group was mainly concerned about truck traffic and diesel soot. So was the Town of Dummerston, for which Putney Road was a link to essential services.
"I went to an early citizens group meeting to find out what was happening," said Brattleboro resident David Ershun, a book editor who became WCRG's vice president and spokesman. "WCRG grew out of that. We had about 700 members, bylaws and meetings. As we got into this we realized that Brattleboro has very little developable land. The industrial park was it, and it was never going to be big enough for C&S."
Soon select board meetings became fractious and the Brattleboro Planning Commission and the Windham Regional Commission, which had supported the C&S project with some conditions, went on the defensive. The president of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce issued a blistering condemnation of WCRG, only to see it followed by a press release from the Chamber's director saying the membership was actually split on the issue. The divisiveness came from the critical importance of the two issues involved: the vitality of the town's economy on one hand and the environmental health and quality of life on the other.
In July 1992, C&S won a permit with 36 conditions. Among other things, C&S had to monitor and report on air quality and the accident rate on Putney Road, and to submit a plan to reduce the quantity of idling of refrigerator trucks.
Cohen appealed for help to Gov. Howard Dean, who said that while he fully supported C&S, it would be dangerous for him to become involved because the District Environmental Commission was an independent board. Meanwhile, an appeal was coming, opposition in town was growing, and the case was getting ready to explode.
In preparation for the Environmental Board appeal hearings WCRG began gathering some of its own traffic numbers, so the board would have more to consider than just those supplied by C&S.
WCRG and the Town of Dummerston's representative, Ahren Ahrenholz, a sculptor and landscape architect, rented a hotel room across from the warehouse. They laid in a large supply of coffee and spent 24 hours counting trucks.
C&S had been operating under an old Act 250 permit for Old Ferry Road that allowed up to 718 trucks to enter and leave during a 24-hour period. The (actual) numbers were off the charts, said Ahrenholz. It was over 1,000 tractor-trailers, 65 other trucks, and their bobtails (tractors without trailers) were running downtown all the time, in clear violation of their permit.."
Startled, people who had assumed that traffic experts were scientifically objective started questioning their numbers. They began to worry that the experts were inclined like lawyers to slant the evidence to make the best possible case for their employers.
These new truck numbers were followed by an admission by C&S that it was also exceeding its employee limit of 1,000 by some 300 people. C&S was suddenly receiving entirely too much public exposure. The Vermont Occupational Health and Safety Administration issued a report critical of C&S' warehouse safety record. The company turned out to have an industrial injury rate that was three times greater than the state average.
With the approach of Christmas, traditionally the busiest time for supermarkets, C&S faced another public relations problem. Without sufficient warehouse space, tractor-trailers were forced to wait, sometimes more than 24 hours, to unload. Trucks with their engines idling were parked all over the north end of town. They filled shopping center parking lots on Putney Road. They peeked out from behind industrial buildings. They filled the rest areas on I-91. The local truck stop was offering showers and cashing checks.
While the new warehouse was still on the drawing board, residents were feeling invaded.
Eventually, C&S was fined $110,000 by the state for its permit violations. This infuriated many in the business community, who felt that the company should be rewarded for its spectacular growth, not punished. In late January, just as the appeal hearings finally were getting under way, C&S bought two buildings in Hatfield, Mass., for about $3 million. It was clearly moving south.
The Environmental Board, headed by Elizabeth Courtney, now executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, held six long, exhaustive hearings.
The parties in the case included C&S lawyers and traffic and air-pollution experts, WCRGs lawyer and its citizen-experts; the Town of Dummerston; the abutting property owners; and a group of C&S employees who were so anxious about their jobs that they hired their own lawyer. The packed hearings were cablecast, and the state's media came out in force.
Looking back, Courtney calls the C&S hearings "democracy in action.." But she believes that the traffic and air pollution issues should have been worked out ahead of time.
"That's when the environment wins and the economy wins," Courtney said.
In early June, the Environmental Board handed down a unanimous decision. C&S had won its permit, but it came with many conditions. Among them, C&S had to put its logo on its trucks to make them easier to count. In an odd twist, the winners were angry, while the losers felt their concerns had been validated by the stringent permit conditions.
"We were not against C&S," Ahrenholz said recently. "They just didn't play by the rules. The issue was giving respect to the process it should be an exchange of absolutely clear information. It shouldn't be smoke and mirrors."
Cohen felt that his authority had been usurped.
"What has happened is that the state has taken over the process of town and regional planning and dictated to us how we should run our business," he told the Brattleboro Reformer after the decision was announced. "I don't think any other state in the country would tell a business to put their logo on the truck. We need to sit back and say, 'What are we getting ourselves into, and what else are they going to do to us?'"
The aftermath was possibly more dramatic than the events themselves:
* For the first time in Act 250 history, the governor angrily and publicly condemned the board. He called the permit a non-permit" and said he was "dismayed" by the board's decision.
To enforce stringent permit conditions on "a local employer with good-paying jobs, at a time when Vermonters are really worried about their jobs it just doesn't make sense," Dean said.
The Environmental Board was shocked by Dean's comments. "Lots of people were aghast," said attorney Stephanie Kaplan, then the board's legal counsel. "The governor didn't sit through the hearings or listen to the evidence, and he was in no position to criticize what was a thoughtful decision based on six days of testimony."
* The editorial board of the Brattleboro Reformer, which had never taken a stand for or against the project, editorialized about the governors comments: "Then why hold the hearings? Why require evidence and testimony? Why not concede that might makes right and hope for the best?"
* C&S announced it had spent about $1 million getting the permit.
* In October 1993, Cohen announced that his company could not expand on Technology Drive because of the "many limitations" raised by the traffic issue.
Instead, C&S started building a 465,000-square-foot warehouse a little larger than the one it had originally wanted in Hatfield, Mass. In a letter to the Hatfield Town Planning Board dated Jan. 26, 1994, C&S tacitly admitted that WCRG had raised the right questions.
"(The Hatfield site) is located closer to the center of the company's distribution network," C&S said. "Construction of the project site in Hatfield will result in less travel per truck trip to those states, which translates to approximately 3.5 million truck-travel miles saved per year. This substantial reduction in truck trip mileage will result in an equally substantial reduction in truck air emissions."
* A political bloodbath took place three months later when the Republican-controlled Senate refused to reconfirm Courtney and two others members whom Dean had appointed to the board. The Democrats called it "environmental McCarthyism."
The politicization of Act 250 had begun in earnest, with Republicans declaring that the state was anti-business and developers worrying aloud about a possible environmental backlash.
One businessman, who asked not to be identified, recently claimed, "People are afraid to talk against Act 250 because of fear of retaliation." Harding, as the former head of the Environmental Board, disputes this.
"I would ask, are those who are alleging that we would retaliate against applicants people who might profit from a weakening of Vermont's environmental laws?" Harding said. "If so, aren't such comments rather self-serving?"
Supporters of Act 250 believe the environmental board was effectively censored.
"Before, the board really saw their jobs as making sure the projects conformed with the criteria of Act 250," Kaplan said. "There was healthy skepticism about 'expert testimony.' Now the board does a lot more weighing of the political and economic consequences of their decisions."
In 1999, C&S sold the SVIP land for about $1.5 million to, ironically, another fast-growing food warehouse. Northeast Cooperatives built 167,000 square feet of warehouse and office space on the property, before it recently went out of business.
A few years ago, a roundabout was built at the Exit 3 intersection, and now traffic flows easily, safely and relatively tractor-trailer-free on thriving Putney Road.
In April of this year, after being passionately wooed by both Vermont and New Hampshire, C&S announced it was building its new corporate headquarters in Keene and would be moving most of its administrative staff there. The original Old Ferry Road warehouse and about 100 office jobs will remain in Brattleboro.
C&S denies, however, that Act 250 played any part in its decision. Instead, the company says the move is based entirely on the larger space available for development in Keene, and the fact that it uses the Keene airport on a daily basis. Brattleboro officials suggest that the lack of an income tax in New Hampshire is also a big draw Cohen, for example, lives in Keene.
With C&Ss decision, Vermont will lose the jobs, the income taxes, the property taxes and the status of hosting such a large and thriving company. In the end, though, the C&S battle may have been less about whether Vermont is "anti-business" and more about the question, "What kind of town do we want to live in?"
"The business community and much of the population was extremely proud of the presence of a giant corporation like C&S," said Frederick Winson Zamore in the 1994 case study he wrote for his class at Harvard. "Equally, residents placed a very high value on the relative purity of their environment and the rural nature of their towns. To many of the town's inhabitants, having these two great and precious needs pitted against each other was as traumatic as watching their parents fight."
Joyce Marcel is a freelance writer who lives in East Dummerston.
February 9, 2003
Balancing Act 250
Stowe aims to blend business, nature atop Vt.s highest peak
Part two of a monthly series exploring Vermonts 14 counties.
By KEVIN OCONNOR
When Stowe President Hank Lunde invited environmentalists to help plan his ski resorts $225 million expansion, he knew some people gave the collaboration a snowballs chance.
Then came his own meltdown.
It was the winter of 1999. After listening to more than two dozen grassroots and government groups for almost a year, Lunde asked them to write down any last worries.
They gave him a dozen pages. He, in turn, grabbed a pen and defaced the list with his own grade: F.
I was pretty frustrated, Lunde recalls. When you go through collaboration with 27 different groups and the people interested in bears are fighting with the people interested in birds, you wonder if anyone can agree to anything.
The 59-year-old executive has since cooled down and cheered up.
My gut feeling is were in pretty good shape right now. It seems to me its just dotting the is and crossing the ts. My sense is Act 250s the real report card.
Lundes talking about the states land-use review law. Environmentalists won its passage in 1970 by exposing slipshod construction near other ski areas.. Builders, for their part, question the time and money they now spend detailing a plans impact on air, water, soil, aesthetics and local services.
Many want change. But the people who turned the states highest peak into Stowe Mountain Resort are, with pen and easel paper, practicing the art of compromise.
Ask anyone in this ski town of 3,903 (add 9,000 more on a snowy weekend) and theyll tell you how Lamoille Countys largest employer not only sat down with friends and foes, but also listened and learned.
The resort also has something to say not only about the payoffs, but also the pitfalls of trying to please a field of environmental and economic interests as wide as its 4,393-foot mountain is tall.
The whole process is quite interesting not because its tied to Act 250, but human relations, Lunde says. Its pretty easy to say no, but its harder to get people to say yes.
Ups and downs
Giant glaciers carved Mount Mansfield 12,000 years ago. Man has tried to make his own mark ever since.
Ira Allen, a surveyor and brother of Green Mountain Boy Ethan, is believed to be the first white man to climb up it, in 1772.
Nathaniel Goodrich, a Dartmouth College librarian, is said to be the first to ski down it, in 1914.
Then theres Roland Palmedo, a New York City banker who mapped out a ski club in Stowe while recuperating from a broken leg in 1931.
And Sepp Ruschp, an Austrian who came to the club to teach in 1936, only to see it swell into a public resort with him as president.
And Cornelius Vander Starr, an insurance magnate who invested in the company in 1945 after waiting in a long line for the areas single lift.
Families from the von Trapps to the Kennedys rode up a new T-bar in 1946, a new double chair lift in 1960 and a new gondola lift in 1968. But by the time Lunde arrived as president in 1997, it was all downhill.
Stowe was where I learned to ski it was The Ski Capital of the East, the Barre native says. But I knew other Vermont ski areas were growing very, very fast. Killington grew and Stratton grew and Mount Snow grew and Okemo grew ... Stowe just wasnt keeping up.
Skiers began fleeing to competing resorts with high-speed lifts, snow-gunned trails and slope-side hotels. Starrs company, the multi-billion-dollar American International Group, watched Stowes percentage of Vermonts ski market plunge from almost 15 percent in the 1970s to less than half that in the 1990s.
Enter Lunde. When he responded to a Killington ski area want ad in 1968, his Rutland County employer drew 200,000 skiers a year. Overseeing a string of improvements, he helped that number rise to more than a million by the time the American Skiing Company bought the business in 1996.
When Lunde reached Stowe, he saw a cramped, chilly 1938 Mansfield Base Lodge, sluggish lifts and snowmaking so old it sometimes spewed orange water. He knew the resort had to change, or close.
We could downsize the company, Lunde recalls, or we could do some real estate development to capture enough capital to fix it.
He foresaw only one obstacle: a state land-use permit process as demanding as Stowes signature double-diamond Starr trail.
Ski magazine summed up his expansion plans this way: On the flanks of Mount Mansfield? Before the next Ice Age? Surely not in Vermont. Not in anti-business, left-leaning, tree-hugging, Bernie Sanders-electing Vermont.
Its called Act 250, but it boils down to 10 points of impact: water, air, soil, traffic, schools, fire, police, roads, scenic beauty and wildlife.
Show that your project wont burden any of those in an undue or unreasonable way and youll win a permit. Let your critics prove you wrong and you can lose time, money and the chance to build anything.
Many in this situation arm themselves with lawyers and attempt to bully forward. Lundes predecessor, for example, tried to rush and circumvent the permit process, spurring the state to call for a record $100,000 fine.
Lunde, in contrast, did the seemingly unthinkable: He invited not only friends, but also potential foes to plan something acceptable to all.
I wanted to see if a grassroots planning process could really work in this state.
His experiment began in 1998. Representatives from more than two dozen groups ranging from Green Mountain Forest Watch to the governors office gathered to brainstorm ways to make the project both economically and environmentally viable.
Problem No. 1: The resorts snowmaking system was draining the nearby West Branch of the Little River below state standards for water quality and fish habitat.
Stowe wanted to change that by building a seven-mile pipeline to Waterbury Reservoir. But that would cost $8 million.
Problem No. 2: Paying for that.
The company that owns Stowe reaps so many billions in insurance its now ranked fourth on Forbes magazines 500 richest companies. But when it came to the ski area, it wasnt going to spend money to lose money, Lunde says.
Stowe is the only major ski area in the state whose revenue is limited to lift-ticket sales, rather than resort-owned lodging, dining and shopping. It therefore proposed its own slope-side hotel, more than 500 condominiums and an 18-hole golf course to draw dollars year round.
People at the planning table knew the ski area sustained most other Lamoille County business. But they also wondered how more than 1,000 new beds would alter their landscape and way of life.
The groups met for seven months before Stowe began wrapping up plans at the start of 1999. Howard Dean, then governor, praised the collaboration as a state model. Lunde, for his part, asked everyone to list their remaining concerns.
What, someone asked, about the plans expected doubling of the local electrical systems load, which was already near capacity?
And the rain runoff from the proposed golf course and parking lots?
And the endangered Bicknells thrush, one of the states rarest songbirds, that lives atop the mountain?
And the engineering problems that raised the price of the snowmaking pipeline to $11 million?
A dozen pages later, Lunde asked himself one more question.
What was he to do?
Lunde knew the project was already behind schedule and figured more questions could cost up to another $1 million. Thats when he answered everyone and everything with that big fat F.
Ive got to say I dont feel too good right now, he was quoted in this newspaper Jan. 24, 1999. Thats my sense of where we are today.
Lunde knew the resorts owners were making enough money on insurance to close Stowe without much regret. But he also felt the county business community, state press and governors office pushing the collaboration.
It was the challenge of proving it could be done. I really believed in the process. If we failed, the process could never be held up as a means for somebody to try again.
And so Stowe moved a ski trail and lift away from hiking paths. It pared 20 acres from its golf course plan. It set aside 850 additional acres for bears. It cut the number of housing units from a proposed high of 573 to some 400. It traded the $11 million pipeline for two ponds to store almost 180 million gallons of snowmaking water.
In 2000, the resort announced a compromise acceptable to the governors office and grassroots groups: It would cluster all construction within existing development and conserve more than 2,000 wooded acres.
In 2001, a state review board gave the project preliminary approval.
In 2002, Stowe sought an Act 250 permit for the plans first phase, saying it would create 736 new jobs, attract up to 12,000 skiers daily and provide the region with almost $18 million in annual personal income.
As for 2003? Lunde hopes to receive an Act 250 permit this winter.
I would guess were going to hear something before the end of March. There are 27 groups that all have signed off on the project. I dont sense theres going to be a problem, but you never know.
Act 250 officials say they cant talk about the plan while its under consideration.
Its one of the most complex projects in the state, one official will say.. Its definitely not the average Act 250 case.
But even if the ski area wins a permit, the storys far from over.
Few Vermonters saw Stowe file its Act 250 application last year. Most instead were focused on the states largest hospital, Fletcher Allen Health Care of Burlington. The hospital, breaking ground on a multi-million-dollar expansion, started building a parking garage without state approval.
They were caught, argued their case, lost and agreed to a $320,000 fine, wrote James Dwinell, editor of the Randolph-based Web site The Dwinell Political Report.
(Construction of the garage continues.)
Look at the Stowe Mountain Resort, Dwinell went on. President Hank Lunde decided to do it right, engage the community, negotiate with the potential naysayers and move judiciously. His reward is that they are over four years in the process and over $2 million in costs with no acceptable permit in sight.
Birds vs. bees
Lunde confirms Stowe has seen its planning and legal bills leap from $1 million to $3 million for a project whose price tag has risen from $150 million to $225 million. And five years after its first meeting with grassroots and government groups, the resort has yet to receive permission to build even the first phase of what could be a 15-year project.
Lunde points to other lessons.
Quite surprisingly, one of the things I learned is just because you represent an environmental organization doesnt mean you agree with other environmental organizations. The people who were focused most on water didnt always care about wasting time on the bears or the birds or the hikers. They can get together and support each other if the answer is no, do nothing. But if they have to help in the solution, thats new ground for them. The environmental community worked very hard to get along with each other.
Environmentalists, in response, say their diverse opinions sprouted from one seed of agreement.
Until were convinced that water quality and snowmaking and habitat issues are addressed, were not going to go away, says Sandy Levine, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.
The Montpelier-based advocacy group knows many developers would rather go to court than compromise. Levine gladly accepted Stowes invitation, joining neighbors ranging from the local Select Board to the Regional Impact Pure Water League to the Vermont Ski Areas Association.
All applaud what Levine calls the resorts willingness and openness to talk about any and every issue.
Anywhere you can work directly with the developer is going to be preferable to an adversarial permit process, the lawyer says.
But many say Stowe could have saved time by offering fewer generalities and more specifics.
The Lamoille County Planning Commission, for example, voiced concern about vehicle traffic. But it wasnt until the resort filed its Act 250 application that anyone learned it would double its commitment to local shuttles.
They said, Yes, we will address it, but we had to wait for the permit process to see how they were going to do it, says William Rossmassler, the commissions assistant director. If they had recommended solutions and sought consensus earlier on, we could have skipped some of the time and correspondence.
Levine remembers the meeting with the dozen pages and one F differently than Lunde does.
I dont think Stowe should have been surprised there were still issues lingering, the lawyer says. All the concerns we ended up having were ones we raised early on. It may have been naïve of Stowe to think those questions could be addressed simply by offering reassurances.
Levine thought a neutral leader could have helped.
There were many different organizations involved and they had many different interests.
Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, believes such impartiality could have changed the debate itself.
Stowes question was, How should we do the development here? and not, Where should we do the development? Courtney says. The question came from the mountains interest, not the communitys interest.
Her council believes the state should strive to keep our mountains free of development and instead place projects in existing villages, towns and cities.
It was already a given they were proposing development at the mountain, so the discussion was different than if the question were different, Courtney says. For the long term good of the state of Vermont, we need to see this kind of conversation being convened by municipalities and regional planning commissions, not just individual businesses. It will produce a more sustainable economy and environment for the state of Vermont.
Change Act 250?
Lunde offers his own thought-provoking fix.
Act 250 and its criteria are right on, but the process causes clashes because theres nothing in it to help people do it better. Its an arguing process rather than a collaborative process. The process is to stop people if theyre doing it wrong. We should have a process to make it right.
Lunde says developers pay for architects and engineers, only to have the state ask questions that require everyone to return to the drawing board.
Hed rather have Act 250 reviewers help business from the start and would go so far as to give his planning money to the state so its experts could devise a project that would meet standards.
Lets spend the money productively. I think the Vermont way is the right way, but I dont think the Act 250 process is the Vermont way. After everything Ive gone though, I tend to feel weve got to fix the process.
To do so, state legislators would have to change the law. (Gov. James Douglas asked them Thursday to consider his own proposal to streamline the process.) In the meantime, the people responsible for administering Act 250 see the idea of collaboration as the most immediate solution.
Rather than go into a court-like setting and argue or litigate, a lot of the problems can be worked out early on during the planning stage, says Michael Zahner, executive director of the state Environmental Board. It doesnt mean everything is going to be smooth as silk. But to the extent you can pare down the concerns, I think it works toward everyones benefit.
The state is seeing more developers reach out.
Even with smaller projects, people will meet with their neighbors and try to work things out, Zahner says. We wish more people would do it. It would be nice to have some success stories out there.
Stowe would like to be one of them.
There is no guarantee it is going to happen, Lunde says. The basis of this whole thing is if we can the permits for it all.
Lunde knows environmentalists arent the only ones with concerns. Stowe made news in 1940 when it built what was then the continents longest, highest ski lift for $75,000. But recently it has lured the likes of Julia Roberts and Mick Jagger because its what Ski magazine calls a glitzy destination resort for upscale tourists who prefer its charm and heritage to the more modern amenities of other Eastern resorts.
Stowe wants to continue to attract such skiers. It estimates its first phase of expansion will increase annual visits from about 350,000 to more than 400,000.
Stowe, Ski magazine continues, has endeavored to implement a wholesale makeover of a resort that has remained essentially the same since the opening of its first gondola more than three decades ago. If approved, this reinvention would fundamentally alter one of the nations most renowned resorts. It had better be good.
Lunde awaits the grade.
Some may say, What have you got to grow for? If our kids want jobs if we dont grow tourism in Lamoille County, what can we grow? I feel pretty darn good about the project not only the help we got, but also the result. Maybe being at the base of Mount Mansfield the biggest mountain in Vermont requires more time and effort. Some day Id like to write a book on the whole process. It was quite educational, I think, for all of us.
Vermont Public Radio
Environmental groups weigh in on proposed permit reform
MONTPELIER, VT (2003-02-07)
(Host) The Douglas administration has won mixed reviews on its proposal to reform the environmental permitting process. A key part of the plan would change the way environmental groups get involved in Act 250 cases. This part of the plan has won tentative support from one environmental organization, but others fear it would make the process more cumbersome for the public.
VPR's John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) The Douglas administration wants to speed up the regulatory review and limit appeals in environmental cases. The governor's sweeping overhaul of the permit process would change the way environmental groups participate in Act 250, the state's main development review law.
Under Act 250, environmental groups are often allowed to participate in hearings if they can offer technical advice or expertise. The administration's plan would eliminate this avenue. But it would allow groups to get involved if they can show they have a direct interest in the case.
Natural Resources Secretary Elizabeth McClain says the proposed standard for Act 250 is the same one used by Vermont courts and administrative panels.
Lain) "We've tried to make it more sensible, more fair, and more consistent with the way the rest of state government operates.
(Dillon) McLain says she followed the advice of the Vermont Natural Resources Council environmental group on the issue. Elizabeth Courtney, the group's executive director, gives that part of the proposal a qualified endorsement. Courtney says the new language is based on a legal definition known as Rule 24.
(Courtney) "As the secretary said, Rule 24 was a suggestion we made. And it has apparently been embraced by the administration. We're appreciative of that and we think that's a fair way to go. There are details around A or B of rule 24, interpretation of interest, and the devil's in the details."
(Dillon) Mark Sinclair, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, quickly points out one devilish detail. He says that the Douglas proposal only adopts a portion of the legal definition that Vermont courts use for standing. Sinclair says the administration's plan will make it more difficult for grass roots citizen groups to participate in Act 250:
(Sinclair) "It's not going to have much of an effect on the well-established organizations like Conservation Law Foundation. We will be able to participate effectively under the legal standing rule proposed by the Douglas administration. But what's really troubling is that the citizens we want to be very involved in Vermont's land use decisions are going to be excluded because they are not as sophisticated as environmental groups."
(Dillon) The Douglas plan would also transfer appeals of Act 250 cases to the Environmental Court. Now the appeals go to the Environmental Board.
Stephanie Kaplan used to be the top lawyer for the Environmental Board who now works as a private attorney. Kaplan told the Legislature this week that the Environmental Board has failed to protect the environment since 1994, when the state Senate refused to confirm several members of the board. She says it makes sense to turn over appeals to professional judges who are not as influenced by political pressure.
(Kaplan) "I personally support whatever it takes to get politics out of the process. I support having appeals go from the district commission to an environmental court composed of real judges who are removed from the political process. I think that the stakes are high enough in the controversial cases that get appealed that judges and not untrained lay people should be making these important decisions and these important legal rulings that affect all of us."
(Dillon) The administration wants to add one more judge to the environmental court to handle the extra workload.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon.
Vermont Public Radio
February 7, 2003
(Host): A few hours after Governor Jim Douglas unveiled his permit reform proposal, legislative committees invited the public to testify.
South Burlington developer Mack Teeson says his project was held up when a historical artifact was discovered on his site.
(tape 1 14:13 Teeson) This little arrowhead cost us 60-thousand dollars and stopped our project for several months. "The point is I think the permitting process has gotten out of hand and we get carried away with endangered plant species, historical things that don't have huge significance. This is a delay and it's an added expense. It adds to the uncertainty of the permitting process."
(Host): But other witnesses spoke about lax enforcement of local zoning laws and their frustration in trying to fight large developments.
Michael Fannin (FAN-in) is a Tinmouth selectman who opposes a marble quarry planned by the Omya Corporation. Fannin recalled a recent Act 250 hearing on Omya's plan to expand a waste site in Florence.
He says the residents of Florence were clearly outgunned by Omya's lawyers.
(tape 1 29:20 Fannin) These people were facing an opponent well prepared for this before ever making an application. This company had previous experience, they had their experts and data, they were familiar with the board, they had the political lobby, the element of surprise. But most important of all they had lots of money, the most essential of all ingredients in the Act 250 process. The people of Florence had precious little of this and I found myself thinking, boy they could use some material assistance.
(Host): Dozens of people testified at the hearing, including a staff engineer from the Agency of Natural Resources.
John Brabant (BRAY-bant) told the panel he was speaking for himself, not the state. Brabant warned the Legislature not to give the agency more power in permit reviews. He says political pressure can influence agency decisions.
(tape 1 29:00 Brabant) The problem with moving 250 process to ANR -- which is definitely a move that's afoot; you folks will be seeing the legislation shortly -- is that ex parte discussion, discussion that not permitted within the Act 250 process, but which works really great if you've got an inside track within the administration or within the agency. Ex parte discussion is allowed everyday and deals are cut.
(Host): The Legislature has just begun its review of several proposals to change the state's permit process. A bill backed by the Douglas Administration will be introduced next week.
Douglas unveils permit reform initiative
By Ross Sneyd, Associated Press, 2/6/2003 23:32
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) A sweeping permit reform proposal unveiled Thursday by the governor quickly split business and environmental groups between supporters and opponents.
Business groups praised Gov. James Douglas for coming up with a plan that they said would speed up the regulatory review of development projects and make the outcome more predictable.
Environmental groups countered that the proposal would give developers too much control and would reduce the public's chances of participating.
There were differences within the business and environmental communities, also. A coalition of 14 business groups, for example, is pushing a bill that would consolidate the permit system even further.
Reaching a consensus on permit reform will take time, warned Sen. Phil Scott, R-Washington, sponsor of Douglas' proposal.
''I'm sure this won't go through intact,'' Scott said. ''So I'd be thinking we'd be looking at other (ideas) as well.''
Douglas conceded a lot of debate lies ahead, but he said he was determined to push for quick adoption. ''I believe we need to take this step this year,'' he said.
He was ready for critics. Reminding a news conference that he's insisting on melding environmental protection with economic development, he said: ''This is the third way. There are some people who want it their way or no way.''
The Douglas plan does not overhaul the entire development permit process. It would give more weight to Natural Resources Agency permits for such things as disturbing wetlands or releasing pollutants into the air.
Under the administration's bill, once those permits were issued, they could not be reopened in Act 250 land-use permit hearings.
Otherwise, the plan focuses primarily on the way permits are appealed after they're issued. The Water Resources Board and a couple of other boards would be abolished and the Environmental Board's duties seriously curtailed.
In their place, the Environmental Court would expand to a second judge. The court would handle appeals of all development permits. The bill would broaden who could appeal, but no one could appeal if they didn't participate in a case from the start.
Douglas said that would be fairer because it would ''prohibit appeal level ambushes,'' something that developers say happens all too often.
Natural Resources Secretary Elizabeth McLain, who was primarily responsible for drafting the administration's proposal, said she considered suggestions for more radical changes, but rejected them as going too far for now.
''This bill makes significant changes without significant upheaval,'' she said.
Permit reform always is sure to be contentious and debate on the wisdom of Douglas' idea started well before he even formally unveiled it.
Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, was especially critical of the administration's contention that the public would have more say in development projects.
The proposal suggests broadening the distribution of public notices when a permit is sought so people can participate. But she said VNRC and other groups say that's not enough.
''We see these proposals as having a cumulative impact of cutting citizens out of a process that was designed to be for the people, by the people of Vermont,'' Courtney said.
''We want to see Vermonters in the driver's seat and not developers in the driver's seat,'' she said.
VNRC plans to offer a permit reform plan of its own next week that would retain most of the current system but would consolidate the various levels of review.
Business groups were largely happy. They said it would give developers more confidence of what's expected of them.
''It's early and full participation so we can find out on the first day what the issues are,'' said Parker Riehle of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. ''That's going to make a huge change.''
Insisting that people participate in development cases from the very beginning of a project appeared to be the most important provision for many business people.
''We agree it will result in predictable and timely permits by involving people early and eliminating appeals at the other end to those who have a direct interest,'' said Sheri Larsen of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.
Vandalism seen as political
By Annette Sharon
DORSET - Members of a citizen's group here are viewing recent acts of vandalism as retaliation for their political views.
Dorset Citizens for Responsible Growth members Robert Menson and Margaret Meacham were targets of two separate acts of vandalism some time between Friday evening, Jan. 24 and Saturday morning, Jan. 25.
Menson found two flat car tires and a windshield full of broken eggs when he got up Saturday morning, while Meacham opened her garage door to reveal a frozen and dismembered deer carcass.
The two see a political motivation to the vandalism because the events happened at the same time and targeted two vocal members of the DCRG.
Both reported the incidents to the authorities, Menson to the Vermont State Police and Meacham to Town Constable Theron Troumbley, who removed the carcass.
The state police discovered that the vandal had drilled the sidewalls of Menson's two car tires and determined the vandal had parked on nearby Cross Road.
"They found footprints through the snow going to my car," he said. "They took pictures of the footprints. It was a large man's shoe."
Menson had to rent a car for the weekend, and cover the $200 insurance deductible to replace the tires.
"It was inconvenient for a few days until it got repaired," he said.
Menson said, as chairman of the DCRG and as a former member of the Dorset Zoning Board, he feels the vandalism targeted him for stands he has taken in town politics.
"Both of these were preplanned," Menson said of the vandalism against Meacham and himself. "It wasn't a spur of the moment thing. You hear about random vandalism, but the fact of the eggs give an indication that it was pre-planned. People don't just carry around a dozen eggs."
Meacham said this is not the first time vandals have struck after she voiced her opinion about town politics.
When she signed a petition this fall appealing the zoning administrator's decision to issue a certificate of occupancy for a new barn/business/home, someone took down the fences around her home, she said.
Not only that, but over the years she has received numerous threatening phone calls, she said, which she has reported to the state police.
The incident with the deer carcass happened the day a letter by Meacham appeared in the Manchester Journal detailing the various activities of the DCRG over the last several years.
"This has no place in town government," Meacham said of the vandalism. "It's really kind of juvenile, if it weren't so serious. People ought to be able to act like human beings. Everyone's entitled to their opinions, but there's no reason to do things like that if you disagree."
Menson agreed. "People can have differences of opinions. They don't have to take it out on each other in physical form."
Menson said he resigned from the zoning board because he was disappointed that the board ignored its own rules and regulations in recent decisions.
"Why do we have rules if we don't follow them?"
Vermont Public Radio
Permit reform plan upsets environmentalists
MONTPELIER, VT (2003-02-06)
(Host) A proposal from the Douglas administration to change the state's environmental permit process has begun to circulate in Montpelier. A legislative draft of the Douglas plan has won support from business groups, but it's criticized by environmentalists.
VPR's John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas will soon make good on his campaign pledge to deliver a permit reform package in the first 100 days of his administration. The Douglas proposal would give more power to the Agency of Natural Resources. It would make many of the agency's permits binding in Act 250 review. The plan is designed to reduce appeals by development opponents. It would limit the ability for environmental groups to get involved in Act 250 cases.
Sheri Larsen, a lobbyist for the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, says the proposal makes sense:
(Larsen) "The top issues on the permitting reform question are party status, appeals and a consolidated application process, where one agency's ruling would be the end answer to the permit. And we understand that the Douglas administration will be submitting a proposal in the very near future and we expect to be supporting his plan."
(Dillon) Environmental groups are gearing up to oppose the plan. Elizabeth Courtney is executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
(Courtney) "This proposal would significantly reduce citizen participation element in Act 250. It puts the decisions about environmental protection into the hands of developers. It takes a law that's designed to be for and by the people and removes the citizen from the equation."
(Dillon) Courtney and other environmentalists were already unhappy with the governor over several of his key appointments. She says environmentalists weren't consulted on the permit plan. She hopes the Legislature will give the public an opportunity to weigh in on permit reform.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.
Burlington Free Press
LOCAL NEWS Friday, February 07, 2003
Vermonters relate tales of Act 250
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- They came in a steady stream to a Statehouse microphone Thursday night -- developers in work boots and plaid shirts, businessmen in suits, elderly ladies with neck scarves and silver buttons, a farmer in Big Mac overalls, a pair of young parents, their children in tow.
Some sat easily and read from neatly printed statements. Others fumbled at scrawled notes with trembling hands and stumbled with emotion as they spoke.
They came from Danby and Danville, Warren and Weston, Randolph and Rutland.
Seventy-five people attended the three-hour joint hearing of the House and Senate Natural Resources Committee. They told the committee in almost a single voice: Something has gone badly wrong with Vermont's environmental permitting process.
Developers and development opponents alike said the system has drained their wallets, damaged their businesses or threatened the peace of their homes.
"Mom and Pop Vermonters are on the ropes and fading fast," said Michael Fannin of Tinmouth, describing the plight of residents trying to oppose a development by a big, well-funded company.
Dick Chapman of West Rutland said small- businesspeople are equally on the ropes. His plan for a small dairy-detergent manufacturing operation ran into unnecessary permit problems, he said.
"The state has done nothing but act like we are sinners," he said..
When it came to identifying what precisely is broken and must be fixed there were as many suggestions as there were witnesses.
The two committees are studying bills that would change Act 250, Vermont's landmark development control law.
Some witnesses said there are problems with the law itself. Others said the blame lies with the people who administer it. Still others pointed the finger at local zoning boards and at the Agency of Natural Resources.
Thomas Tafuto of Fayston said local zoning and Act 250 both failed to stop creation of his neighbor's auto body shop, a business he said endangers his family's health.
"What good is it to have state-of-the-art environmental laws on the books, when even the most basic, clear-cut cases of inappropriate development pass through the system in the manner I've described?" he asked.
Real estate developer Mac Teeson of South Burlington pulled a piece of chipped flint out of his pocket and put it on the table. "This little arrowhead cost us $60,000 and stopped our project for several months," he said.
Farmer Stephen Jones of Danville complained about septic regulations and the snafu they have created for his plan to subdivide a few acres.
"I can't even give my daughter land I've paid taxes on for years and years," he said.
Several witnesses, including John Brabant, an employee of the Agency of Natural Resources, said the problem is that Vermont has created a complex system, but won't spend the money to make it work properly.
Brabant also charged that inappropriate "deals" are cut to issue permits to projects that don't meet state standards.
Most witnesses defended the environmental protection goals of Act 250 and at least one, John Brodhead of Craftsbury, said he'd taken projects through the process and found it "fair and expeditious."
Others, like Peter Berg of Mount Holly, complained about the system's faults, but worried the Legislature might make things worse.
"Examine Act 250 very carefully. As faulty as it might be, it's better than what you might come up with," he said.
Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or 229-9141 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Have you encountered Vermont's environmental permit process as a developer, opponent or commission member? If you'd like to share the story of a specific experience, send it to email@example.com or Candace Page, The Burlington Free Press, P.O. Box 10, Burlington, VT 05402 or 660-1865 or 229-9141.
Thu 06-FEB-2003 11 P.M. News Script
Good evening - I'm Roger Garrity. The public had its say tonight over how to reform Vermont's permit process. Legislators held a hearing so they could gauge public opinion as they start reworking Act 250. As Kristin Carlson tells us, there were plenty of opinions about HOW to fix the permit process, but everyone agreed it needs fixing.
((tc 11:47 The problems are the process and the people who administer it.)) Legislators got an earful. The public hearing on permit reform was standing room only. ((tc 16:13 Thomas Tafuto: There is a total disconnect between the law that we have written and the effective enforcement of it.)) ((tc 20:29 Stephanie Kaplan/Former Environmental board lawyer: I support whatever it takes to get politics out of the process.)) Most people could not contain their comments to the two minute time limit. For some it was therapy - a chance to vent about ACT 250 woes. ((5:08 Mack Teeson/Burlington: It's becoming a problem for the little guy who doesn't have the money to sustain the challenge.)) ((tc 8:34Richard Camp/Sells logs: We have no plans to circumvent the law - we just ask that it is done in a more expedient way and there is more timeliness so we can comply with the law)) Others say permitting now unfairly favors developers - and more needs to be done to get the public involved. ((tc 15:04 Annette Smith/Danby: Growth is inevitable the question is where and how and the extent that we recognize that no place on earth as special as Vermont.)) The list of people wanting be heard was long - and the views very different. But everyone seemed to agree ACT 250 is not working - and some sort of change is needed. ((tc 20:04 Stephanie Kaplan/Calais: Since the senate purge of 1994 - ACT 250 has lost its way and it no longer protects Vermont's communities or its environment.)) ((tc 24:01 KC: Already there are several proposals in the statehouse to reform the permit process. Now legislators will have even more to think about as they try to get a bill passed by the end of the session. Kristin Carlson - Channel 3 news, Montpelier.))
Governor Jim Douglas unveiled his permit reform plan today. Douglas wants to eliminate the Water Resources Board and have the the Environmental Board oversee ALL permit issues. But the E-Board would no longer hear appeals -- sharply limiting its power. Instead all appeals would be heard by an Environmental Judge. The Douglas plan would also eliminate last minute appeals. And interest parties would have to show they are directly impacted by a project to have a say. Business groups are backing another permit reform plan that would essentially eliminate Act 250. In its place would be five person boards in every community that would review developments under local and state regulations simultaneously.
Some say trim Act 250's sails, others say strengthen it
By David Gram, Associated Press, 2/6/2003 21:24
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) More than 100 people packed a Statehouse hearing room Thursday night to tell lawmakers of their experiences with Vermont's environmental laws.
Some came to call for streamlining the 30-year-old Act 250 land-use law and similar regulations and for making them easier on developers. Others asked for tougher enforcement of the laws.
''If I own something then it is mine to do with as I wish,'' said Kevin Goodrich of Albany, who said he was thwarted from building on an 11-acre lot he bought by new state septic regulations.
''The law has just taken my property away from me. Am I going to be justly compensated for it?'' he asked.
But a large portion of those testifying complained that Vermont's environmental laws have been ineffective, particularly in recent years.
Stephanie Kaplan, a lawyer from Calais who often represents clients opposing developers, said there was a ''purge'' on the state Environmental Board, which oversees Act 250, in 1994, when the Republican-controlled Senate rejected three of then-Gov. Howard Dean's nominees to it.
Since then, she said, the Act 250 process has become ''a permit mill that almost always gives developers what they want.''
Kaplan said she supported shifting authority for many land-use decisions away from the Environmental Board and nine district environmental commissions, which have lay members, to the state Environmental Court, where a judge would take a more professional approach to applying the
That squares with a key provision of a permit reform proposal issued Thursday by Gov. Jim Douglas, who also called for a larger role for the Environmental Court.
But environmentalists were clear in their comments to the joint hearing of the House and Senate Natural Resources committees that they did not favor Douglas' and some business representatives' calls for reducing
citizen participation in the Act 250 process.
''The general solution is to strip away any formality that discourages or disenfranchises any concerned ... party from full participation in the permitting process at a local, regional and state level,'' said
Thomas Tafuto of Fayston, who has been battling an auto-body shop that was set up next door to his home three years ago.
John Brabant, a 15-year employee of the Natural Resources Agency, said many of the complaints from developers about permits being issued too slowly stem from not enough staff in the agency to process them faster.
Douglas has called for an 8 percent cut in ANR's budget during the next fiscal year.
But while environmentalists called for tougher enforcement of existing laws, the frustration of some developers at the enforcement that exists now was palpable.
Burlington developer Mac Teeson held aloft an arrowhead found at the site of a housing project he was working on in Winooski. ''This little arrowhead cost us $60,000 and stopped our project for several months,'' he said. ''The permit process has gotten out of hand. We get carried away with endangered plant species and historical things that don't have much significance.'
The Champlain Channel
Governor Proposes Change In Vermont's Act 250 Plan Would Speed Up Permit Process For Developers
February 6, 2003
MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Vermont's landmark development law known as Act 250, would see dramatic changes under a reform bill Gov. Jim Douglas outlined Thursday.
Douglas said his changes will make getting a building permit easier and less costly, but not at the expense of the environment.
Douglas said he was delivering on a promise he made hundreds of times along the campaign trail last fall -- to fix Act 250. But his solution is drawing heavy fire from environmentalists, even before the bill is formally introduced next week.
Developers said the changes are needed. For example, one construction site in South Burlington saw its first developer go bankrupt because of delays in getting permits and fighting appeals.
Chittenden County homebuilder Patrick O'Brien said buyers pay the price for the delays.
"When we're running our calculations, we put in between $10,000 and $20,000 per unit for permitting costs -- mostly lawyers," said O'Brien.
Last year, a survey of business leaders found environmental permitting at the top of the list of ways Vermont is no longer competitive with other states. That's something Douglas said his Act 250 reforms would change.
"(It will make the permitting process) faster and more predictable. It involved broad public participation. It ends most of the divisiveness seen in the permit process in recent years," said Douglas. "It will maintain the strong environmental standards we all cherish."
Act 250 would still require developers to explain how their projects would effect the environment. Any citizen could speak out about a project in its early stages.
What changes most is the permit appeals process, which would be handled by professional judges instead of citizen panels.
Douglas calls the change, "Strengthening our commitment to common sense." The line earned him applause during his inaugural speech last month.. But the actual bill is facing questions.
"My first take on it is concern, significant concerns," said Sen. Virginia Lyons, the Democratic chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.
And environmental groups said the governor's bill could open the floodgates to new development.
"I think it could dramatically change the landscape of Vermont over time," said Elizabeth Courtney of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Douglas wouldn't say if he thought his bill would spark a new wave of development, but he did say it was an effort to create jobs.
Burlington Free Press
Tuesday, February 04, 2003
IT'S MY TURN
Reforming Regulation Doesn't Mean Harming Environment
By William Bartlett
Based on 30 years of experience as a participant in, an observer and critic of Vermont's environmental regulatory process, I agree reform is needed. I also agree we need to make this process (by which I mean permit decisions issued by Act 250, the Agency of Natural Resources and local zoning) more predictable, effective and "customer" friendly.
These important objectives have been mentioned by many proponents of regulatory reform but sometimes with too narrow a perspective. Often ignored is that lack of predictability and a customer friendly atmosphere are serious and costly problems for all participants in the environmental regulatory process, not just for permit applicants.
The regulatory decisions in question often have long-term implications and allocate finite and valuable public resources such as air and water quality to private use. When decisions that affect resources belonging to all Vermonters are being made, everyone affected is a "customer" of the environmental regulatory process and should be treated as such. Making permit decisions as quickly as possible is very important, but making the right decision in terms of Vermont's environmental standards is essential.
The most urgent problem to be addressed by regulatory reform is that the current process is failing to do its job. The fact is that Vermont's environmental standards are too often not being met. As a consequence, air and water quality are deteriorating in many locations, we continue to lose prime agricultural lands and valuable wetlands and the many serious and costly impacts caused by sprawl are not effectively addressed. If these problems are not considered as an integral part of regulatory reform, adverse economic as well as environmental consequences continue to accrue.
Whatever its faults, Vermont's environmental regulatory process has not created a "problem" by making Vermont's rivers and streams overly pristine or Lake Champlain too clean.
In fact, failure of the regulatory process to ensure that Vermont's environmental standards are met continues to have major and avoidable adverse impacts on economic development.
A major cause of uncertainty and unpredictably in Vermont's environmental regulatory process is the widening gap between the requirements of Vermont and federal environmental law and how those requirements are actually implemented in specific permit decisions. As an example, ANR's failure over a long period of time to properly regulate stormwater discharges in compliance with the law has left a legacy of expired and unenforced discharge permits, impaired waters, regulatory uncertainty and litigation. As a direct consequence, the regulated community has ultimately had to bear the higher costs associated with complying with environmental standards after the fact.
There are many opportunities to improve the regulatory process in ways that will benefit both permit applicants and Vermont's environment. We can standardize permit review criteria and administrative process including appeal routes in order to eliminate inconsistencies and redundancies. This in turn will allow increased reliance on ANR permits in the Act 250 process and the integration of Vermont's many permit requirements into a more coherent, effective and therefore more predictable regulatory process.
To accomplish this and more, specific recommendations on regulatory reform need to be supported by facts and careful analysis. Fundamental problems with the current process should be clearly identified and thoughtfully addressed rather than responded to by selective and often self-serving assumptions and anecdotes, as has often occurred in the past.
Vermont's policy should be to allow, and in appropriate cases encourage, all sustainable economic development provided that our environmental standards are not compromised. The process for making those decisions should be efficient, transparent and predictable for all participants. Let's get to work!
William Bartlett who lives in Hyde Park recently retired after 25 years as the executive officer of the Vermont Water Resources Board.
Tuesday, February 04, 2003
'Smart growth' plan could be a boon to downtown
By BOBBY GATES
BENNINGTON -- Senior housing, a civic center or parking garage are just some examples of how smart growth could be applied to Bennington's downtown.
Those are the recommendations from a three-year study that matched the Vermont Forum on Sprawl with the Vermont Business Roundtable in an examination of three sites in Vermont with development potential - including one in downtown Bennington.
The block, bound by South and Main streets, Washington Avenue and Franklin Lane, was the focus of the work, which wrapped up late last year.
In a preliminary report released in January, the group laid out two possible scenarios for the downtown block using examples of "smart growth" that could be used statewide.
One was focused on the redevelopment of the Putnam Hotel, the other was set around a civic center.
Both involved plenty of parking and additional housing.
"We decided early on we wouldn't be restricted by zoning," said Elizabeth Humstone, executive director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. "We were trying to think creatively and not be restrained by local zoning regulations."
The goal of smart growth, as defined by the American Planning Association, is to focus a larger share of growth within central cities, urbanized areas and areas that are already served by infrastructure and reduce the share of growth that occurs on new urban land, existing farmlands and in environmentally sensitive areas.
Staige Davis, vice-chairman of the Vermont Business Roundtable, said the traditional stereotype has been that little agreement exists between business and environmental groups.
"We were looking at ways the two groups could work better together," he said.
Typically, discussions about reform of the state's permitting process - including Act 250 - have been polarized, he said.
"I think we have come up with some solutions that everyone can agree with," said Davis, who is president and owner of Lang Associates, the largest real estate firm in Vermont. "The time is right considering we have a new governor who is open to change."
Humstone said she plans to take the project findings to the newly appointed secretaries of both the department of commerce and community development and department of natural resources.
William B. Colvin, Bennington's director of economic and community development, equated the study to "playing monopoly" and said it was primarily conducted to examine state policy that - to date - may have prohibited the type of development the study has proposed from happening.
"It'd be nice, but obviously something like this would take funding and a committed developer and the interests of the current property owner," Colvin said.
The block that was the focus on the study has been identified by the Better Business Corp.'s economic development committee as its top priority, Colvin said.
"These (plans) need to be understood as simply what could happen," he said.
Norman Greenberg, who owns a large portion of the land involved in the study, could not be reached for comment. Robin James, Greenberg's representative who worked on the project, said she was not surprised by the plan's inclusion of more housing.
"They really aren't made to be a template for Bennington to follow, they are just examples," Davis said.
Final, more detailed plans, including cost specifics, are expected to be released soon.
Humstone declined to say how much either of the planned scenarios for Bennington might actually cost.
The final report will include those details, she said, including possible scenarios that would allow it to be built in phases.
Both scenarios, as outlined by the group, are much the same as development in the area now, with similar building height, lot lines and a mixed use, Humstone said.
"We're not talking about anything that is out of line with the pattern of development that is there now," she said.
Monday, February 3, 2003
CLF worried about changes
By Bruce Edwards Herald Staff
(Mark Sinclair is the staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont.)
Question: Youve criticized Gov. Douglas appointment of Jeffrey Wennberg as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation and David OBrien as commissioner of the Public Service Department. Whats wrong with those choices?
Mark Sinclair: I believe David OBrien and Jeff Wennberg are men who care about the public interest and I think its great they want to serve the state of Vermont. My concern is with their experience and values in terms of the state agencies theyll be running. In the case of David OBrien, hes going to the Public Service Department at a key time in Vermonts energy future. Vermont is at an energy crossroads. Were the only state in New England that has not gone to (electric) retail choice and adopted restructuring of our energy regulatory system. Our electric rates are some of the highest in the region. And were facing some key decisions in replacing our major sources of energy, both Vermont Yankee and our long-term contract with Hydro-Quebec. I think you need at the helm of the Department of Public Service somebody who has deep experience in energy issues and frankly I dont believe David OBrien has much knowledge or in-depth understanding of the energy sector. So I think theres going to be a fair amount of getting up to speed time. I think the state needs somebody with a lot of sophistication about Vermonts energy needs.
Q: Has someone with that kind of experience always filled that position?
Sinclair: (In) the Dean administration, Rich Sedano, an engineer, worked his way up through the ranks of the department for years understanding energy issues from the ground floor. When he left, Commissioner Salambier didnt have tremendous amounts of experience in the energy world, but she did know about telephone and telecommunications issues. And she worked as a deputy for years before she became head of the department. In the past, youve had Louise McCarren, who was very immersed in energy issues.
Q: Why did Douglas pick OBrien then?
Sinclair: I think Gov. Douglas may have had difficulty finding a qualified person to head the Department of Public Service. I think its been difficult for him to find business leaders who are willing to take a cut in pay and take on some of these difficult economic and environmental challenges that were facing. I also think theres a sense by Gov. Douglas that the PSD is too progressive and needs to be reined in so the job was advertised as youve got to come in and clean house. I will say Im not opposed to a business-minded commissioner for the PSD. Actually, I think there are reforms to the way we deal with energy decision-making that can benefit both business and environmental interests. Whats good for the environment is also good for business.. Weve allowed our utilities to lock Vermonters into long-term contracts where weve had to pay very high fixed prices. In many way, CLF is saying what IBM is saying we should allow for competition, open our markets to lower-cost power.
Q: You mentioned deregulation of the retail electric market. But hasnt that been put on the back burner, especially given Californias experience?
Sinclair: Thats really unfortunate. California is a completely different situation than New England. In New England, every other state besides Vermont has endorsed competition and restructuring, were seeing consumer rates go down except here in Vermont. Consumers and businesses can choose where they want to get their power. And in combination with that competition youre seeing clean energy being built in the form of state-of-the-art gas plants that are much less expensive than the prices paid for Hydro-Quebec power and for Vermont Yankee nuclear power. Our officials have blindly decided that the California problem should scare Vermont off from competition. But in our own backyard of New England youll see competition has worked quite well. I think Vermont has a lot to gain economically if we become leaders in developing wind power. Well, that wind power cant become commerciallyviable and available to Vermonters until we restructure our energy sector and provide some strategic support for development of wind energy and, for that matter, biomass energy.
Q: You mentioned clean gas plants. Yet a proposal several years ago to build a natural gas pipeline and two associated gas plants in Bennington and Rutland was opposed by residents in towns along the pipeline route.
Sinclair: CLF has endorsed strongly that the New England region build state-of-the-art gas plants because those plants are much cleaner in terms of air pollution. They also produce one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions that come out of coal and oil plants. Yeah, Vermont should look at options like ultra-clean natural gas plants to supply some of our future energy. Now having said that New England is a region. We have to stop looking only at the four corners of Vermont. Theres been a lot of construction of natural gas plants to date so that if we opened our markets we could buy some of that power.. So its not absolutely necessary that Vermont construct its own natural gas plant. I actually think for the Chittenden County area it makes some real sense to look at a combined heat and power plant or extending gas lines into the Burlington area. Thats something we should be looking at. We also have to be aggressive in investing in energy efficiency. Whats problematic from my perspective, the state hasnt begun to make any planning decisions once Hydro-Quebec and Vermont Yankee are gone and thats less than 10 years.
Q: Youve raised some questions about the OBrien appointment. But youve also questioned Wennbergs appointment to head the DEC.
Sinclair: Ive known Jeff Wennberg and his past statements about Vermonts regulatory system have caused me to be somewhat fearful about where his environmental values lie. Hes made it clear when he was mayor of Rutland that he had a strong disdain for our environmental regulatory system. Im fearful hes out to weaken Vermonts regulatory laws in the name of streamlining. And he will roll back environmental democracy the ability of all Vermonters to have a say in how Vermont is developed. Im also concerned from his past record that he will not embrace the mission of the agency. That agencys job is not to promote economic development but to protect the environment. Having said that after criticizing him in the media the day of his appointment, the next day he called me and said I really want to sit down with you and have an open door policy to the environmental organizations. So Im going to give him a chance.
Q: Gov. Douglas has made Act 250 reform a top priority. Do there need to be changes?
Sinclair: The issue is bigger than Act 250. Its often used by business leaders as a scapegoat complaining about the regulatory system. If you look at other states in New England, the environmental regulatory system in Vermont is pretty straightforward, fairly fast, and doesnt create an awful lot of headache. Talk to a developer for a subdivision or a mall in New York and Massachusetts, and theyll tell you Vermont looks pretty good. This whole mantra that Vermont is bad for business because of its environmental laws is a misperception and largely anecdotal. In fact, I point to the recent report by the Vermont Economic Progress Council that basically confirmed that behind all the noise about Act 250 there is very little factual information to show whether our regulatory system is broken and is harming business development. Theyve called for an independent, objective analysis. We do think Act 250 needs reform. We dont think its strong in a lot of ways. We also dont think its dealing with the growth pressures Vermont is feeling today. Act 250 was written when we were worried about ski area development and second homes.. Today, the real land use problems are sprawl outside of our major towns and conversion of farmlands. CLF would support lessening the restrictions in Act 250 in growth centers and downtowns, if there was stronger prohibitions against converting farms into subdivisions.
Q: Those who want to reform Act 250 and limit the appeals process, point to the Okemo Ski Area project which took five years to receive a permit.
Sinclair: This condemnation of the regulatory system by anecdote is something that I dont subscribe to.If we want to look at the statistics, they show that 98 percent of all the devlopments proposed are approved. I cant speak specifically to the Okemo project, but that was a major development into wild bear habitat. May be the reason it took so long was because that development was really environmentally sustainable. And may be it should have been given a no. Our concern is that Act 250 is often made very political.
ABC 22 TV
Governor Jim Douglas and The Environment
By Ron Mott
6:43 pm EST January 29, 2003 -- Vermont Governor Jim Douglas welcomed a host of environmental leaders to Montpelier on Wednesday afternoon who are concerned about the direction in which his administration might be headed on the issue.
Some environmentalists have expressed reservations about whether Douglas has appointed the right people to key environmental positions.
"I wouldn't characterize the situation as troubling," said Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "We're going into this meeting expecting to establish a good long-term relationship with the governor."
"By appointing people to these important environmental positions who have the economic side of the experience, but without perhaps the best environmental side, that's where he falls down," said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
Douglas defended his appointments, saying environmentalists shouldn't worry that he'll place economic development ahead of the environment.
"We can't have an environmental community think they are apart from the rest of us," said Douglas, (R) Vermont. "We can't have an economic community think they are apart from the rest of us. We're all in this together."
But Douglas has made it clear that he intends to reform the permitting process of the state's land-use law, Act 250's, which some have charged has given Vermont an anti-business reputation.
"We want to make sure that any permit reform that goes forward maintains strong environmental standards," said Jim Murphy, of the Vermont Sierra Club. "We certainly want a fair process and we certainly want an efficient process."
And Douglas says that's exactly the direction he's hoping to take the law.
"We need to do a better job mechanically, but the environmental standards of Act 250 will not be touched," Douglas said.
Rutland Herald, Commentary
Serving economy and environment
January 30, 2003
The work of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board is one of the best and most important things that state government does in the service of Vermont's economy.
Vermont's environment is vital to our economic development. There is enormous economic value in our natural and working landscape. Agriculture and forestry are particularly important to Vermont's rural communities. Protection of the working landscape protects and produces jobs, both in these sectors of the economy and in the travel and tourism industry. The people who visit Vermont as tourists come here to see our unique agricultural and forested landscape, not the pervasive development from which they seek to escape.
Since 1987, when the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board began its work, the $41.1 million that VHCB has invested in farmland conservation has conserved 310 farms around the state, leading to the creation of 1,673 jobs and leveraging $60 million in additional private and public investments in farmland conservation. The agricultural infrastructure in farm communities - farm and forestry equipment and supplies, financial services, veterinary services - has helped to keep our rural economy viable and has helped to build Vermont's reputation for high-quality products - from cheese to maple syrup to furniture - that make productive use of our natural resources.
VHCB has invested $27.6 million since 1987 in working with local communities and state agencies to preserve 241,156 acres of important recreation lands, natural areas and historic properties. In addition to enriching communities, this work has leveraged additional conservation funding of over $100 million. There is a direct correlation between VHCB's conservation work and tourist visits to places VHCB has protected. Hunting, fishing, bird watching, snowmobiling, hiking and mountain biking are allowed and encouraged on all or appropriate portions of conserved lands. Revenues generated by these activities are vitally important to the tourism sector of our economy.
Vermont's natural beauty, its farms and forestlands, and its hiking trails and swimming holes are the very things that attract entrepreneurs and major employers to Vermont. IBM, Husky, and countless other employers have come here because of personal connections to the state's natural resources.
The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board's work is not just about protection of our natural environment. Since its inception, VHCB has also supported and helped to develop countless affordable housing projects across our state since its inception. The melding of conservation and affordable housing projects within this one organization speaks volumes about Vermont's unique insight into the connection between the natural world and the human environment. VHCB is a successful, ground-breaking example of Vermont's commitment to the basic truth that people are an integral part of the natural world we so deeply cherish. In this vision, conservation of natural resources need not exclude the human ecology that we call our economy, and a vibrant economy need not destroy the ecological values we treasure.
As one who was in business in Vermont for 35 years, I know the importance of a healthy business climate. As a lifelong devotee of outdoor pursuits from hunting to photography, I also understand that our business climate needs to respect and to capitalize on a healthy environment.
There has been informal conversation in some political circles to the effect that, in tight economic times, Vermont can afford to "take a year off from conservation." The pressures that threaten to overtake our natural landscape are unlikely to "take a year off." We need to offer to our political leadership a positive, hopeful vision of how important a healthy landscape is to Vermont's economic health.
As our new governor and Legislature seek to develop new approaches to land use regulation, development review procedures and economic growth, we need to protect initiatives that already serve Vermonters well. Surely, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, committed as it is to both the human and natural ecology of our state, has served us well and should continue to do so..
Rod Vallee of St. Albans is a retired business executive and a member of the board of trustees of The Nature Conservancy of Vermont.
Burlington Free Press
LOCAL NEWS Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Douglas team worries activists
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- Environmental groups said this week they have grown increasingly anxious about the direction of the Douglas administration, as the new Republican governor appoints one business executive after another to key environmental jobs.
Those worries have been compounded by what some environmental leaders see as other straws in the wind.
One is Gov. Jim Douglas' proposed 8 percent cut in the Natural Resources' Agency base budget. Another is his promise to look at the state's plans for the conserved Champion lands in the Northeast Kingdom, to see if he wants to propose changes.
Today, Douglas will meet with about 10 environmental leaders at their request. They will ask him to create a Council of Environmental Advisers and to deliver on his promise to balance economic development with environmental protection.
Douglas said Tuesday that environmentalists shouldn't worry. He defended his appointees and said he will create an environmental advisory council.
"Give us a chance," he said. "Environmentalists have nothing to fear from this administration."
His audience will need some reassuring.
"We heard it said by the governor himself that he has a fairly centrist position. These appointments are anything but centrist," said Steve Crowley, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's state chapter.
"The environmental community really thinks Gov. Douglas' appointments are heavy on the economy and light on the environment," said Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment was more blunt.
"After the appointments, I felt like I'd been hit by a sledgehammer," she said.
Environmentalists expressed varying degrees of concern about Douglas' choice of Jeff Wennberg, David O'Brien, Kevin Dorn and Pat Moulton-Powden to key environmental posts.
Groups that defend Vermont's environment were feeling a bit besieged even before the Douglas appointments.
In Washington, the Bush administration has been rolling back decades of environmental gains, the Vermont leaders said.
In Vermont last fall many candidates, including Douglas, appeared to be campaigning against Vermont's permit process, blaming it for the state's job losses.
The danger, environmentalists say, is that reasonable procedural reform will turn into a stampede to dismantle Act 250 and other environmental laws.
Douglas said that won't happen. Most of his appointees, he noted, have some experience in environmental areas despite their business background. Vermont can't flourish if economic development comes at the price of a damaged environment, he said.
"My permit reform bill will have broad bipartisan support," he promised.
Their grave doubts about Douglas' nominees leaves environmental groups with a dilemma.
Should they oppose Senate confirmation of his choices, and risk permanently damaging their relationship with the new governor, or stay silent and see what kind of job O'Brien, Wennberg and the others deliver?
"Obviously, we have concerns about the baggage some of the appointees are bringing to the job, but we'll withhold judgment until they do something, good or bad," said Pat Berry, VNRC's communications director.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said his organization would "welcome an opportunity to speak to the Legislature about these appointments" to at least raise questions.
VPIRG is most concerned about O'Brien's lack of experience on energy issues, and Wennberg's previous political positions.
"His appointees ought to share with the Legislature and the public how they are the best people for the job. If they can't explain that, perhaps the governor ought to make another pick," Burns said.
Looking for clout
About 20 of the state's leading conservation groups have been meeting weekly for several months. They are searching for a common stand on hot issues, starting with permit reform.
"We want to make sure we speak with one voice to make sure the Douglas administration doesn't roll back our environmental heritage," said Mark Sinclair of the Conservation Law Foundation.
Other leaders said the new coalition has less to do with the Douglas administration and more with a general desire to lobby more effectively.
"My hope -- the hope of all of us -- is to establish a long-term relationship with the governor. I'm hoping to hear that he is interested in a continued dialogue," said Courtney of the VNRC.
Smith, of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said she already has met with the governor and put him on notice.
"I told him I wanted to work with him -- but if he wants to fight, I know how to do that, too." Smith said.
Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or 229-9141 or firstname.lastname@example.org
January 29, 2003
A Permit Reform Proposal
Working on behalf of a large and growing coalition, we have been privileged to spearhead the draft of a permit process reform bill for consideration by the legislature in the upcoming legislative session. As drafted, the bill will protect the environment, enable greater citizen participation in the permit process, reduce administrative costs and improve predictability. This commentary briefly describes the bill, which is now available on our law firm's website: www.vtlawl.com.
A key facet of the Coalition for Permit Reform bill is that it does not relax a single permitting standard. Rather, it simply eliminates duplication from the regulatory system that grew up since 1970 when Vermont first enacted major legislation to protect the environment. To this end, the bill divides the current Act 250 criteria into two groups: those for which the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) provides a comprehensive review - such as discharge of pollutants to air and water - and those for which it does not. The bill proposes to consider the former criteria even more carefully by improving the ANR process for their review.
The only reason we have ever heard for Act 250's re-consideration of a proposed project under criteria that are well-regulated by the ANR is that neighbors may have been unable to participate in the ANR process because they did not receive notice of ANR's review. The proposed bill corrects this problem by considerably improving the public notice requirements for any permit application filed with the ANR. This change will enable neighbors to make their views known when they really count - before ANR conducts its review. The bill also enables neighbors to participate more fully and easily in the overall permit process. They will also be able to participate in the process and make their views known without first proving party status, which they must currently do under Act 250.
The bill proposes that projects are considered under the balance of the Act 250 criteria such as traffic, aesthetics, and consistency with the local and regional plans - in a process that combines Act 250 review with the local zoning process. Act 250 is set up to claim jurisdiction when a project's impacts are regional in scope and nature. Accordingly, under the proposed bill, two officials from each region - one appointed by the regional planning commission and the other by the regional development commission - will represent a region on a combined board that will review every project subject to Act 250 jurisdiction under the remaining Act 250 criteria and the applicable local zoning criteria. The remaining three members of the combined board would be zoning and planning officials appointed by the town in which a project is proposed.
Having two regional officials participate in the application of local zoning ordinances may at first seem like the erosion of local control. The Coalition for Permit Reform, however, believes that the bill increases local control by creating a combined board to apply the remaining Act 250 criteria that includes a majority of its members from the town in which a project is located. Under the current system, a town has little input into the Act 250 process; under the proposed bill, town officials will help administer Act 250 as it applies within its boundaries.
In the final analysis, however, who conducts the initial review of an application is not very important. Either everyone is happy or someone is not. If anyone is unhappy enough to take an appeal, the Environmental Court undertakes an entirely new review of the issues on appeal.
The big winner under the proposed bill is the public. Initial review processes will be informal, just like most development review board hearings. No one will have to prove party status to participate, which they must now do to participate in the Act 250 process. In addition, a single set of hearings will be sufficient to resolve everything. This will save the applicants' resources and will conserve the energy of those who may be affected by a project...
Another key innovation is that all permit appeals will be directed to the Environmental Court. The Environmental Court is already handling about four times as many appeals as the rest of the system combined - and is doing so more expeditiously and at far less cost per appeal that the rest of the system... To handle the new load, however, two new judges will be appointed to serve on the Environmental Court. Superior and district court judges will be rotated through the Environmental Court just as they are currently rotated through family courts and other courts. This will prevent the Court from calcifying in any direction.
To resolve permitting appeals, it is especially appropriate to rely on judges who are trained to apply the law. We can all hope that the planning and zoning boards and commissions that initially consider permit applications will be able to use the informal process allowed by the bill to fairly consider every project and give everyone their due process. If they fail, however, and a party takes an appeal, in America at least, such an appeal should be resolved based on the rule of law. As any reasonable person would want a skilled surgeon to operate on them rather than a part-time, well-meaning, poorly compensated committee of volunteers appointed by the governor, so too should we rely on well-trained and carefully chosen judges to apply our zoning and land use laws.
Our goal has been to assist the Coalition for Permit Reform to produce a well-conceived and centered bill. Of course reasonable people can disagree with particular provisions in the bill. Let us resolve our disagreements so that we can restore Vermont's reputation for state-of-the-art environmental regulation and prepare Vermont to address future environmental challenges using a well-functioning process.
Jon Anderson and Jeremy Farkas practice land use and real estate law with the Burlington.
Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Powden to head Environmental Board
By MATT SMITHWICK Southern Vermont Bureau
SPRINGFIELD Patricia Moulton Powden, the executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corp., was named chairwoman of the state Environmental Board on Monday.
Gov. James Douglas announced the appointment in Springfield at a meeting of the Rotary Club. Douglas said Powden had the tools and the experience to handle the job. Douglas said Powden also understands the importance of integrating job creation with environmental protection, a notion he called the third way.
The challenge were facing in Vermont is not a choice between the economy and the environment, but a choice between both or neither, Douglas said. Pat has the perfect mix of experience to carry out the third way the Vermont way.
Although Powdens background is primarily economic development, she promised on Monday to be even-handed and fair-minded, working with both the environment and job creation in mind. Powden said she recognized the importance of using existing facilities often abandoned manufacturing space to create new jobs.
My development activity has been to try to redevelop underutilized facilities. ... Development in Vermont is about the synergy between economy and environment, Powden said. Ive always wanted to get involved in the regulatory (process). This will give me a chance.
Powden, a 43-year-old moderate Republican, has headed up the Springfield Regional Development Corp. for six years. Vermonts Environmental Board serves as the regulatory arm for the Act 250 process. The quasi-judicial boards primary function is to hear Act 250 appeals.
As the leader of the SRDC, Powden has helped bring new businesses to Springfield. Most recently, Powden helped develop an agreement that will bring New York states Ellsworth Ice Cream to the community in the coming weeks. Powden also helped keep longtime machine tool company Bryant Grinder Corp. in Springfield after its former owners declared bankruptcy.
Last year, Powdens group bought the Jones & Lamson Plant 1 on Clinton Street with an eye toward redeveloping the former industrial site. Powden is close to finalizing an agreement with NBC Solid Surfaces to stay in a portion of the J&L building, while the majority of the site is redeveloped for future use.
Powden led economic development efforts during a difficult time in the region. Over the last couple of years, more than 500 jobs in manufacturing have been lost.
Douglas said Monday that the loss of those jobs, which were mainly in the machine tool industry, was the result of the overall economy and part of a trend of job losses throughout the state. Douglas praised Powden for her work despite the economic hardships.
In addition to her work with the SRDC, Powden served as a member of the Windsor County Brownfields Assessment Project. In the mid-1990s she was appointed by Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., as a member of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a private, nonprofit and non-partisan research organization dedicated to economic vitality and environmental quality.
Powden also served as a member of the Agency of Natural Resources team that identified the top 20 environmental challenges facing Vermont. Powdens father, Elbert Moulton, headed up the SRDC before Powden. Moulton also worked at the state level in economic development, and under the Snelling administration, he had a hand in drafting the original Act 250 legislation.
Act 250 is in my blood, Powden joked after the announcement.
Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and a former chairwoman of the Environmental Board, called Powden a pragmatist who would do a good job of balancing competing interests.
Courtney said she had reviewed an interview Powden gave in 1994 after she learned of her appointment on Monday, and she came away confident that Powden would do a good job.
Shes thoughtful, deliberative and a pragmatic person, Courtney said.
She will be able to tell the difference between real problems and perceived problems, Courtney said, and not attempt to fix whats not broken.
Shes clearly not interested in polarizing and she takes a real pragmatic view of things, Courtney said. She recognizes the interdependence of the economy and the environment.
Courtney headed the Environmental Board during the 1990s and failed to gain reappointment in the Vermont Senate after the controversial decision to give C&S Wholesale Grocers an Act 250 permit to build a new warehouse in Brattleboro, but with strict conditions that the company found too onerous.
Courtney said Powdens future success was contingent on her doing her own research and not accepting the anecdotal evidence of the day.
I think she needs to be a good listener and a good researcher, she said.
Too often, Courtney said, Act 250 gets blamed for others problems, whether it is local zoning or a different permit from state agency.
Hopefully, she will shed some light where the real problems exist, she said.
Powden said the SRDC would start looking immediately for her replacement a chore that a number of area officials who work with Powden said would be difficult.
I think its going to be a very difficult job for SRDC to replace Pat. Pat had two very good skills: Shes able to meld the private sector with the government sector and I think those skills are very difficult to find, said Thomas Kennedy, the director of planning for the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission. Shes really thoughtful. ... She really understands the importance of planning in government.
Local officials also praised Powden for her even-handed and balanced approach. Springfield Town Manager Robert Forguites said Powdens efforts would be difficult to replace in town. But Powden would go on to be successful at her new job, he added.
Your gain is our loss. We will greatly miss Pat Powden, Forguites said to Douglas following the announcement.
Powden, a Londonderry resident, plans to leave her current position on Feb. 4 and start work in Montpelier after that date.
Saturday, January 25, 2003
Officials: Act 250 needs more strength, not less
By EESHA WILLIAMS
BRATTLEBORO -- With some state legislators calling for the elimination of Act 250, and the governor calling for sweeping changes in the law, at least three projects that were built in Windham County without required environmental permits may provide a preview of things to come.
One of the projects, a home in Dover, was built above 2,500 feet elevation, without a permit. Any construction at that elevation needs an Act 250 permit because such projects are visible to large numbers of people, and because of the increased vulnerability of the environment on mountain peaks and ridges, said Marcy Harding, chairwoman of the state Environmental Board, which issues permits and enforces Act 250.
The two other projects are remote homes in Guilford and Jamaica, which required Act 250 permits because of the amount of land that would have to be cleared to bring power lines to the houses. Neither town has a zoning law, so without Act 250 there would effectively be no limit on what kind of project could be built where.
No one knows exactly how many projects are built without required Act 250 permits. But Harding said her "gut feeling" is that the number is relatively low.
"Most people want to obey the law because they realize everyone benefits if they do," she said. "Those who fail to apply for permits usually do so because they didn't know they had to."
Stephen Holmes, a land use expert with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, disagreed.
"That's like saying no one ever speeds on the freeway, but, by the way, we don't have any cops," he said.
The Environmental Board has no enforcement officers, though several staff members at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) are charged with enforcing Act 250 as well as other state environmental laws.
Warren Coleman, an ANR attorney who often intervenes in Act 250 hearings to advocate for environmental preservation, said the number of illegal building projects could be significant.
"The resources for monitoring and enforcement of Act 250 just aren't there," he said.
April Hensel, director of the District II Environmental Commission, the area Act 250 panel, said projects built without Act 250 permits are often caught when the buildings are sold. Before the sale is completed, lawyers for the buyer routinely check to make sure the property has all required permits, she said.
In the case of the Jamaica home, Central Vermont Public Service had applied for and received a permit to bring a power line the 3,300 feet from the nearest utility pole to a remote new home. But the home's owner subsequently hired a private company, Chandler Electric in Newfane, which did not have a permit, to install the poles and wire.
In October, when the company had installed several of the 15 poles required, Hensel's office ordered the project halted, said Charles Chandler, the company's owner.
"It's very frustrating for the poor home owner," he said. "They have to run their new home off a generator."
Meanwhile, CVPS has appealed to the Environmental Board a condition of its permit for the home that required the utility to apply for Act 250 permits for any future homes it wants to connect to the line. That case is pending before the board.
In the case of the Guilford home, CVPS never applied for the required Act 250 permit to bring power to another remote new home, said John Bennett, a senior planner with the Windham Regional Commission. Hensel said that failure was due to an innocent oversight by the utility's lawyer.
In 2002, the state issued approximately 549 permits under Act 250, and fined 14 violators a total of $34,175, Harding said. That was a marked decline in fines from the previous two years, even as the number of permits issued stayed almost constant. In 2000, fines totaled $72,625; in 2001, the total was $59,200.
Harding said the decline was coincidence, but Holmes said it could be the result of political pressure.
"Some people in the state bureaucracy are trying to keep their heads down to avoid provoking people like the governor who are looking for any excuse to gut Act 250," he said.
Gov. James Douglas and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce have both called Act 250 an impediment to economic growth in the state and called for the permit process to be "streamlined."
Harding says it's rare for the Environmental Board to force an illegal building to be removed. "Remediation" is often ordered, which can include planting of bushes to screen the new building from neighbors' view, or rules on when trucks can use quiet roads, in the case of commercial buildings..
But even the remediation is rarely enforced, said Holmes.
"For example, a few years ago, the environmental commission ordered Intrawest Corp. to build a kind of bridge that would protect a sensitive stream that flows from Stratton Mountain," he said. "But if it wasn't for a local group of citizens, no one ever would have noticed that the corporation put the bridge's supports right in the middle of the stream."
With the number of houses in Windham County doubling every 30 years, and eight of the county's 23 towns having no zoning laws, Act 250 is all that limits what can be built where, at least until 2007, when new statewide septic system regulations come into effect, said Holmes.
"It would be extremely short-sighted to weaken the law further than it already has been," he said.
Tuesday, January 28, 2003
By BRUCE EDWARDS Herald Staff
Gov. James Douglas met with Rutland business leaders Monday morning, seeking their feedback on the obstacles to growing jobs in a region that has experienced several plant closings in the past year.
What Vermonts new governor took away when he left the South Station restaurant 90 minutes later was a long list of beefs and suggestions ranging from the now-familiar need to reform the states regulatory environment and excessive workers compensation costs to tax reform and transportation.
Plant managers of two out-of-state companies told Douglas that the less their home offices knew about the regulatory process in Vermont, the better.
I dont want them to understand the regulatory process, said L. Dale Rector, manager of the Experian bulk mailing operation in Rutland Town. Its the way the agencies are interpreting the laws that are really running the state.
As an example, Rector said Experian conducts pre-employment drug testing. But he said the state has ruled that since the company conducts pre-employment drug screening for permanent workers, it must also drug test temporary workers as well. Rector argued that the state has inappropriately expanded the law.
At a time when we are prospering and growing, hiring temporary employees is very difficult to do, Rector said.
Those comments were echoed by T.J. Smith, plant manager of the Wallace business forms plant in Manchester. Smith added that Act 60 and the burden it places on property wealthy towns is also an issue. And while Vermont likes to market its scenic beauty, Smith said publicly traded companies like his make decisions based on the bottom line.
They dont care how pretty it is here, he said.
Douglas said he plans to revive a commission that existed during the Snelling administration to make sure rules drafted by state agencies are in keeping with the law.
He heard a similar complaint about new septic rules, which one engineer said bore very little resemblance to what was discussed prior to their adoption..
John Socinski of Rutland Marble and Granite said the states permitting regulations made it difficult to open new quarries in the state and that means fewer jobs are created. Socinski, who buys marble from Georgia, said the cost associated with going through the Act 250 permit process like that experienced by a quarry in Sheffield was prohibitive.
Lynn Saunders, chairwoman of the Brandon Select Board, put in a plug for transportation improvements.
The whole Route 7 corridor, including the Rutland railyard, is extremely important to this area of the state, Saunders said.
Central Vermont Public Service Corp. President Robert H. Young told Douglas that excessive taxation discourages new businesses from moving here.
In particular, Young said the states high marginal tax rate puts Vermont at a competitive disadvantage with other states.
If we dont address that, were not going to go very far, said Young, who also suggested that that the state needs to better coordinate its economic development efforts.
During the informal give-and-take meeting, one of several job summits the governor is holding around the state, Douglas took copious notes and his comments were often supportive of the concerns raised by the audience.
For example, while agreeing with the need to lower the marginal tax rate, Douglas said such a move would take time. On the other hand, Douglas, who has made Act 250 permit reform his top priority, said reforming the permit process can be advanced more expeditiously to help business.
Its become a lot more cumbersome and legalistic and we have to change that, Douglas told the 50 or so people who packed the small meeting room.
The head of Rutland Regional Medical Center said if the state has any pilot projects in mind, Rutland would be a good candidate.
I think everyone here is open to change and improvement, said RRMC President Thomas Huebner, who noted that the area has been proactive on the jobs creation front by recently establishing the Rutland Business Council.
Rutland lawyer John Valente said the state also needs to reform its workers compensation laws. Valente told of one case where an employer saw their premium soar $25,000 in one year. He also said the process to settle a claim can take too long. Addressing concerns about the lack of job opportunities for young people in the state, Douglas said his son was among those who has taken a job out of state.
Its a great job but its not here, he said.
To stem that exodus, he said the state needs to increase its investment in education and training.
As the session ended, Douglas said it was important to have informal discussions from time to time, and he urged business leaders to keep his administration apprised of their concerns.
Lets keep in touch, he said.
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