Act 250 Overhaul (S.311/H.687) - May 1, 2024

The Senate Economic Development Committee convened on Wednesday morning to review the new version of H.687, which incorporated parts of the bill they had worked on earlier in the session – S.311. Chairwoman Ram Hinsdale noted that there was a new amendment from Senator Bray that had just been released. She noted that Bray was claiming this amendment was the “holy grail of negotiations” between her and the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Legislative Counsel shared that there was no side-by-side available yet, but they would try to have it finished before the bill reached the floor.

Ram Hinsdale apologized for the “inelegant process” and mentioned last-minute feedback from the Finance and Appropriations Committees (who voted the bill out before Bray’s amendment). She warned them they would likely hear frustration around that.

She also shared that on Thursday there will be a ‘Caucus Of The Whole’ (this is a full-senate informational session, it is a is free form discussion but no votes can be taken) in order to “digest all of this.”

Senator Cummings interjected that “Finance would have never passed it out if it saw all the amendments.” Ram Hinsdale added that she didn’t think “Appropriations would have either…”

One of the recent changes is that the bill rebrands the Natural Resources Board, which oversees the Act 250 process, as the Land Use Review Board. Ram Hinsdale noted that “professionalization of the Board has been met with agreement overall and that is why in Finance and Approps added $400K for the NRB to do their professionalization work in January (2025).” However, she does not seem convinced that the name change is necessary or prudent, even if the Board is becoming “professionalized.”

The Appropriations Committee also reduced the number of staff attorneys from 3 to 2. The latest draft also struck fees for appeals against Act 250 permits.

As the walk-through of the bill proceeded, there were concerns that emerged around motel conversion requirements. Some of these may be single use occupancy for certain applications and the language may prohibit forward conversions such as for long term stay for nurses. There was interest in making it more flexible.

The Committee discovered that the Senate Natural Resources Committee had struck a section that limited who can appeal municipal permits. Legislative Counsel was still doing research but noted that it was potentially unconstitutional because of appeal rights. The other Committee felt limited by that possibility and struck out that section. After some discussion and Ram Hinsdale suggested they live without it as “the legal areas ate explored.”

Senator Harrison noted that she is working on a draft amendment to study the Agency of Transportation (AOT) and the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development. She wants to know what revenues received by developers for affordable housing now and what needs to be available in the future to leverage the exemptions they are making in Act 250. She noted that Cummings shares her concerns about “workforce housing” needs that are possible here and density is important. Harrison disagrees that 75-unit properties is unnecessarily large for Vermont. Ram Hinsdale objected, saying that a 75-unit development is not for large, blighted parcels in Downtown Development Areas.

Senator Brock stated “I am concerned about the complexity [the bill] to begin… I am not at all sure that this is going to be any faster in terms of getting the housing we need right now… I am not convinced this is going to do anything material. We spent a lot of time, but we haven’t spent enough time… Because we are doing all these changes on the fly, without enough time and talk to enough people who are affected, to know the unintended consequences of some of the things we are doing… That worries me.”

Senator Clarkson agreed that they may have made mistakes but argued that have to do something in the short-term to make change. “We can afford risks,” she stated. Ram Hinsdale countered that “this is a huge shift for the Legislature. Some say we do little some say we took dynamite to the mountain…”

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