House passes bill to simplify permit review and appeals

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(Host) The House has passed a bill that overhauls the way the state reviews environmental permits. The bill attempts to streamline permit review and consolidates appeals to an expanded Environmental Court. On Thursday, lawmakers defeated an amendment that would have established a three-member appeals board to handle environmental cases.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Many lawmakers campaigned on a promise to reform the permit process and Thursday was the chance for the House to deliver. The bill backed by Governor Jim Douglas and House Republicans would send all permit appeals to the Environmental Court. It would limit appeals by environmental groups, but would give greater appeal rights to neighbors of development projects.

Representative Bill Johnson (R-Canaan) chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. He says the bill preserves the strengths of the Act 250 land use law, while making the process more predictable for business. According to Johnson, the legislation shows Vermont is open for business.

(Johnson) “This bill will send a message that we wish to encourage business growth and development but not at the expense of the values we all cherish as Vermonters.”

(Dillon) A key amendment to the bill centered on how permit appeals would be handled. Democrats wanted to steer appeals to a three-member panel modeled after the Public Service Board. They said the appeals panel could use hearing officers to handle minor appeals, and that this would avoid backlogs in the court system. Representative Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg) backed the amendment:

(Lippert) “We do not need to nail every nail with a sledgehammer. Judge time is a very precious time. We do not need environmental judge to hear every appeal that comes before us in the appeals process.”

(Dillon) But Representative Peg Flory (R-Pittsford), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, disagreed. She says the appeal plan backed by Democrats wouldn’t address the court backlog.

(Flory) “We have a backlog in a lot of cases. By going to a Public Service Board model, or going to this model, you’re not going to change it. What is going to change it is for this body to do what we’ve been trying very hard to do this year: take a look at the fiscal impact, make sure that we write the law so that we’re aware of the impacts we have. That’s what we tried to do in this bill.”

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas also continued to press for the Republican permit reform plan. The governor has cast the debate in economic terms. The Senate hasn’t yet considered the bill, and Douglas warned at his weekly news conference that every day the Senate doesn’t act is another day that Vermonters may not get jobs.

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

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