Environmental groups weigh in on proposed permit reform

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(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.

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