Last minute plan would consolidate permit appeals

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(Host) As the Vermont Legislature heads toward a likely adjournment Friday night, the Senate is offering up a new proposal for environmental permit reform.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Reform of the state’s environmental permit process was a top priority for the new Douglas administration when the Legislature opened five months ago. As the session wound down, hopes for a bill were fading fast.

Right from the start, there were major differences between the Republican controlled House and the Democratically controlled Senate. The House wanted to consolidate appeals to an expanded environmental court. The Senate liked the current system of appeals boards made up of ordinary citizens, not judges.

On Friday, the Senate put a new offer on the table. They proposed to send appeals to a new panel called the Natural Resources Board. It would combine the Environmental Board, the Water Resources Board, and two other appeal panels. Senator Phil Scott (R-Washington County) who is part of the Senate team negotiating the bill.

(Scott) “This is something that really makes sense to me. It has a lot of common sense in it. It’s a good approach, it keeps the citizen board as kind of a quasi professional board. It kind of blends the two. And it gets us to where we want to be. It gives us that consolidation, the uniformity. And it just makes sense. I hope we take that to heart.”

(Dillon) But the House negotiators on the bill were skeptical. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman William Johnson (R-Canaan) says the Senate plan is completely new and wasn’t reviewed by any key committees in the House and the Senate. And Johnson questioned the timing of the Senate plan. He says the Senate had the bill for months but only came up with a solid offer at the last minute.

(Johnson) “The governor’s proposal was introduced in the Senate at roughly the same time as it was in the House, back in January. The Senate has had an equal amount of time to work on this as the House. Unfortunately, the first substantial proposal we’ve seen from the Senate has come on the last day of the Legislature. We have to decide whether we are willing to move forward at this late date or not. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with that.”

(Dillon) When Johnson brought the Senate offer back to his Natural Resources Committee, Democrats generally supported the plan. But Republicans questioned whether they should abandon their plan for the expanded environmental court. They also said that that other key issues – such as whether other state permits should be binding in the Act 250 process – remain unresolved.

Johnson said the House must decide to pass something now, or try to get more sweeping reform next year.

(Johnson) “That’s the dilemma we’re in right now. Are we going to be in a better position taking what the Senate is offering, which also includes allowing the Legislature to look at and work on this in the next legislative year. Or are we better off to just declare an impasse and coming back next year to work? That’s the question before us.”

(Dillon) Negotiators for the House and Senate were scheduled to meet again early Friday evening.

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

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