Legislation aimed at streamlining the state’s environmental permit process has stalled in the House and is likely dead for the year.
The bill was a priority of Governor Peter Shumlin, who has called for eliminating some redundancy in Act 250 appeals.
"I ask the Legislature to require the environmental court to use the commission’s record of the hearing to settle an appeal, avoiding the costly and inefficient process of starting all over again," Shumlin said in his January budget address.
Shumlin pushed for a change that the business community has sought for years. The administration’s proposal would set up a pilot project in three counties. In those areas, challenges to Act 250 permits would be based on the hearing record already developed before a District Environmental Commission, not new evidence developed at the Environmental Court.
The Act 250 bill passed the Senate and was sent to House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Developer Ernie Pomerleau, perhaps the most vocal proponent of changing the appeal rules, told the panel that companies like his waste time and money re-arguing their cases.
"The issue of on-the-record changes that a little bit and condenses the issues that you can be attacked on," Pomerleau said. "Why should a developer, having received all these approvals, have to prove themselves again?"
But Chairman Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat, said the more his panel dug into the issue, the more it concluded that the Act 250 process actually works well.
"I’ve been searching for, and the committee’s been searching for, the reason for the bill," Klein said. "And (we) and haven’t seem to come up with a specific problem that many people can directly point their finger to and say, ‘If you do this, things will be better.’"
Klein’s committee did hear from environmental lawyers opposed to the change. Montpelier lawyer Gerald Tarrant heads the Vermont Bar Association’s environmental section. He surveyed attorneys by email, and says lawyers for developers and lawyers for project opponents were unanimous in their message.
"The one thing I was shocked and really surprised at was that they all agreed that the process is working and that on-the-record is not working," Tarrant said.
House Speaker Shap Smith is also a skeptic of on-the-record appeals. He said in a recent interview on VPR’s Vermont Edition that changing the appeal rules could add unnecessary time and expense to Act 250 hearings.
"There have been strong views expressed about … this bill leading to more litigation at the local level, that people if they believe that they’re not going to get a chance for open review at the appellate level are going to essentially lawyer-up at the local level," Smith said.
Chairman Klein said his House Natural Resources and Energy Committee will not act on the bill this year. He said he’d like the Legislature to take a broader look at the environmental permit process, including permits granted by the state Agency of Natural Resources.