Douglas continues push for permit reform

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas went on the road again Wednesday as part of his campaign to overhaul the state’s environmental permit process. Douglas asked a business coalition for help in pressuring lawmakers to pass permit reform in this legislative session.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) It was a pep rally on permit reform. The governor wants the Legislature to pass a comprehensive bill that’s now in the House.

The bill would remove appeals from the hands of citizen boards and instead direct them to the Environmental Court. Under the legislation, it would be harder for environmental groups to challenge developments unless they were involved in the review process from the beginning. But the bill does give more weight in appeals to neighbors who oppose projects.

(Douglas) “I want to expand notification and appeal rights for those people who are directly impacted by development projects. But I don’t think it’s fair that out-of-state special interest groups can come into Vermont and spend lots of money to hold up reasonable progress that Vermonters want and need.”

(Dillon) Douglas asked the business leaders in the audience to contact lawmakers and push them to pass the permit bill this year. The permit bill hasn’t cleared the House, which is controlled by Republicans.

But the governor has focused particular attention on the Senate, where the Democrats are in the majority. After the speech, he said he’s worried that it may stall in the Senate during the last months of the session:

(Douglas) “My concern is that the legislative session is in its final third, at least I hope it is, and I worry about the pace of legislation when we’re dealing with fairly controversial and comprehensive proposals that have to go to multiple committees. So I’m concerned about the progress at this point and that’s why I feel it’s important for people to contact their legislators.”

(Dillon) In the Senate, the Natural Resources Committee has worked on another aspect of permit reform. It’s drafted a rewrite of local planning and zoning laws that cover the permits administered by cities and towns.

Senator Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden County) is the committee chairwoman. Lyons says the House agreed to go first on the big overhaul of the Act 250 permit review. Lyons says she doesn’t want to rush the Senate review of the issue just to get something done.

(Lyons) “One of the consequences of changing just one part of this whole process is that you get a change, a wave that goes through the entire. We want to be certain that when we change one part that we’re solving problems and that we’re not creating new problems along the way.”

(Dillon) Douglas believes that the House bill, which targets the state appeal process, is more important than the Senate bill that looks at local zoning issues.

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

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