BE Home Bill - Jan 26, 2024

The Committee returned to their draft BE Home bill on Friday morning to review the latest draft with Legislative Counsel. The bill is 86 pages long, but a helpful overview document was also provided.

Chairwoman Ram Hinsdale indicated that she to move toward a consensus vote for the inclusion of each of any stand-alone bills that should be included in their committee bill. February 9th was the date given for when proposals needed to be submitted by.

Senator Harrison submitted several bills for inclusion:

S.243, which introduces a stormwater utilities mechanism to clarify that revenues can be used for these efforts. While there was no revenue in the bill, she noted that the utilities could handle almost half of the local highway department budgets with impact fees etc.

Senator Brock noted that he also co-sponsored the bill. There was a brief discussion revolving around an “Act 46 for town governance.” According to Ram Hinsdale her town Manager asked her for such a thing and Senator Clarkson and Harrison spoke favorably about a bill on the wall in the Senate Government Operations Committee that would pursue town government consolidation.

Next, Harrsion spoke about an “Act 250 Self-Certification” bill. Her original bill missed the deadline for Introductions, so she is offering the language here. She believes this would offer “inexpensive” addition to the enforcement tools available to the Natural Resources Board (NRB). This new process would allow the NRB to, at intervals, verify that a developer is in compliance with the conditions of their permit. She believes this is helpful when property changes hands it can be a way of detailing obligations to buyers.

Next, she spoke about a Vacant Commercial Buildings bill, S.275. The bill proposes to authorize municipalities to assess a civil penalty to the owner of a commercial property that remains unoccupied and vacant for any 180-day period.

Senator Cummings wondered if they would be “punishing someone for a problem they cannot control?” Brock agreed with this assessment.

Ram Hinsdale thought that kind of situation will be exempt if they were trying to market the property. Brock countered that these are “subjective” calls on what “diligently trying to market” means. Ram Hinsdale felt she “heard enough interest” to review and look into this more.

S.228 was up next which would offer a permanent fix for properties that currently do not require a Jurisdictional Opinion (JO), closing a loophole created in last year’s housing bill.

Ram Hinsdale wants to see a “bridge past the sunsets we put in that gets us to tiered map, that is the direction.” The tiered map she is referring to is the new Act 250 statewide land use permitting framework that has been proposed. She was unsure if they “need to put in a fix right now until we sort out where it belongs and if we need it.”

Heather Pembrook (Deputy Commissioner, Department of Environmental Conservation) was up next, outlining their “overall position on the housing bill and areas [they] are open to changing.”

Senator Clarkson asked specifically about Section 3 of the bill and the Administration’s position on the Act 250 Recommendations Report (Necessary Updates).

Billy Coster (Director of Natural Resources Planning) outlines the current laws that allow “re-litigation” of current permit process and highlighted that the Natural Resources Board (NRB) study recommends changes that create pre-permits from the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).

In regard to the second bill, related to permit compliance, the current NRB provides authority to withhold permits which can delay the process by weeks and months. Coster wants to see from the NRB perspective if the language would have the desired outcome. Folks at the Department of Environmental Conservation are “very invested in that [agency permits] should stand alone and not be re-litigated,” he added.

Adam Miller (Environmental Compliance Division Director, ANR) mentioned a permit navigator tool which was built with CARES Act funding. It provides a simulator by region and type of development to see up front what permits may be required as well as contact information to begin exploring these agencies and offices.

Ram Hinsdale asked that ANR sets up a time to “mock up the bill.” She added that “it would help to have someone in the room.” Pembroke was glad to oblige.

Lauren Hierl (Executive Director, Vermont Conservation Voters) was next. She referenced a “Environment Common Agenda” which can be found here. The report focuses on flood resiliency and climate coalition building.

Jon Groveman (Policy and Water Program Director, Vermont Natural Resources Council) took the chair and shared some concerns about Tiers 1A and 1B in the draft bill. Ram Hinsdale interjected that she “wants to see some friction from an environmental justice standpoint of taking developable land out of 1A and 1B on municipal water and sewer.” She continued to say that “outside of these hamlets and valleys, we want to be in a very intentional way looking at clusters of affordable housing.”

Clarkson added that they will be taking a deep dive on the appeals issue, but are focused on limiting the timeframe for appeals, the number of appeals, and ensuring that those filing appeals have some “skin in the game at some point” so it will not impede an “otherwise public good.”

Groveman applauded the mapping and the Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs) “stepping up” and looking out 20 years at growth. VNRC ability to do that has been limited, but he sees that “these mapped areas are going to be wider than they have been in the past, but as long as it is based on planning and information and protecting resources” they will be somewhat supportive.

Groveman highlighted the professional Housing Board of Appeals as a hallmark of this bill. He described it as an expert body that will be nimble (not a court) and can be applied to a variety of permits. He is concerned that the current quasi-judicial appeal system can actually hurt a community due to delays and oversight likely happens.

Senator Brock stepped in to say, “let’s not forget the underlying issue; if you have clarity as to what the rules are, you have a much lower probability of having or needing appeals in the first place.” Turned to Groveman, he said “I don’t think you spend enough time focused on that.”

Groveman took the criticism and agreed.

Legislative counsel took the opportunity to walk through the bill. There is a helpful summary available here.

Clarkson called the bill a “big dump” meaning it has a large number of varying topics.

Section 6 deals with the appeals and the movement towards the RDC level. It was decided that they need to have these groups in to discuss. Harrison wondered if this will affect their “quasi-judicial status” and legislative counsel believed it would make them “perhaps more quasi-judicial.” Groveman spoke up to warn that this may actually slow down the process as “everyone lawyers up.”

There was another discussion about temporary exemptions as an “interim policy” pending the famous mapping and Ram Hinsdale keeps emphasizing that the “housing crisis cannot wait for the mapping.” However, she acknowledged that water & sewer are THE limiting factors in many rural areas.

Legislative Counsel continued on review a number of provisions that would clean up existing exemptions covered by the new mapping system. However, it was still noted that wetlands permits would still be required even inside of designated development areas.

NOTE: It is important to comment here that the system being contemplated is moving decisions about where development should go from the local level up to the statewide level. One of the reasons for this is to get a more cohesive system that avoids the pitfalls of NIMBYism, but it also means an erosion of local control.

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