Douglas outlines Act 250 reform plan

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas has offered more details on his plan to overhaul the state’s environmental permit process. The governor says his proposal will make the process quicker and more predictable. But environmentalists worry that the public could be squeezed out of the state permit review.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Governor Douglas wants to consolidate permit appeals in the environmental court. Under the present system, appeals of Act 250 permits are heard by the Environmental Board. Appeals of water permits go to the Water Resources Board. Air permit appeals go to the Air Variance Board.

Douglas says this system of appeals is a burden on business. His proposal would add a judge and support staff to the Environmental Court:

(Douglas) “The appeal process is clearly broken. It’s not fair to put someone through this process on multiple occasions going to different tribunals with appeals on the same project. It’s not fair. It’s costly and it’s costs that are passed on to customers and homeowners. And it’s costing us jobs. That’s the bottom line.”

(Dillon) Supporters of Act 250 note that 98% of applications are approved, with 70% getting their permits within 60 days. Douglas says despite that record, the law has been an obstacle to economic development.

(Douglas) “I certainly don’t dispute the statistics, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story about its impact on the economy of our state. Many are issued with conditions that are quite onerous on the applicant. Many applications are never forthcoming in the first place. A lot of businesses – say I went through it once, I’m never going to expand again because of the difficulty there.”

(Dillon) The governor’s proposal would give more power to the Agency of Natural Resources. This means if developers got an air or water pollution permit from the state, that permit would be binding in the Act 250 review. Under the current system, those permits could be challenged under Act 250.

Elizabeth Courtney, the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, says the governor’s plan limits the ability of citizens to get involved. She says it would be hard for the public to find out about state permit review.

(Courtney) “It would be a permitting process that would be driven by government agencies and applicants, not by citizens. I think it could dramatically change the landscape of Vermont. Essentially, what we have now and what we have with these proposals is a process that doesn’t connect good permitting with good planning.”

(Dillon) Courtney says communities need more help from the state to steer development to areas where towns decide development should occur.

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

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