Any discussion of Vermont must include a review of Act 250, Vermont’s landmark Land Use and Development Act.
Act 250, as it is commonly referred to, is a very progressive set of regulations governing development to protect the environment, aesthetics and local government resources of Vermont.
Act 250 become law in 1970, largely in response to the completion of Vermont’s interstate highway system, which reduced driving times from major metropolitan areas like New York, Boston, Montreal and Hartford by an hour or more.
Prior to 1970, Vermont had no environmental laws and no land use regulations whatsoever and many towns had no zoning or subdivision ordinances.
While not all development falls under Act 250, the net is cast fairly wide. Permits are required for any subdivision of 10 or more lots, any commercial development of 10 or more acres (1 or more in any town with no zoning ordinances), any state or municipal development of 10 or more acres, any housing project with 10 or more units, any development at all above 2,500 feet altitude, any communications tower exceeding 50 feet, any project using 340,000 gallons of water per day and any extractive/mining development.
Act 250 sets out a set of criteria that developments must adequately address to obtain permits, including the following:
– Air and water pollution
– Water availability
– Burden on existing water supply
– Soil erosion or degradation of the capacity of land to hold water
– Highway congestion
– Impact on education facilities
– Burden on municipal resources
– Adverse effect on aesthetics, scenic beauty, natural areas and habitats
– Impact on primary agricultural soils, productive forest soils, earth, growth
– Resources, energy conservation, private and public utility services,
– Scattered development, growth and public investment, and
– Compliance with local and regional plans
Nine District Environmental Commissions were established and empowered to grant or deny development permits. They are staffed by citizens of the respective regions appointed by the Governor for two to four-year terms.
A Natural Resource Board was also established at the state level to add guidance and expertise to the overall permit process.
Last, the Vermont Environmental Board was established for the purpose of hearing appeals from District development applications. In 2005, this board was replaced with the Vermont Environmental Court.
Across the state, there are 600 to 800 development applications per year.
About 80% of these tend to be “small developments” and public hearings are not required. The 20% that are “large developments” have public hearings.
Typically, 98% of applications are approved, but many plans are modified during the permit process. Applications with strong local opposition are often simply withdrawn.
Any development requiring an Act 250 permit must address all the criteria outlined above. This obviously costs money and, as the permit outcome is uncertain, increases the risk of any development.
On the other hand, the process prevents the very real costs associated with unfettered development, like water pollution, water shortages, air pollution and highway congestion to mention but a few. These costs would ultimately have to be borne by taxpayers on any developer’s behalf.
Here’s an interesting historical note. Governor Deane C. Davis, a Republican, put Act 250 in place. He also introduced the sales tax. How things have changed since 1970!