Chairman Bray kicked off the Senate Natural Resources Committee meeting on Thursday by acknowledging that Legislative Counsel has done great work producing a “very long bill,” S.308, based on the Natural Resource Board (NRB) recommendations. The core bill concepts were presented to the Committee, but they did not do a full walk-through because of the length of the legislation. The “advocates who are in this morning” were encouraged to respond to the draft with comments and concerns about the draft.
Peter Gregory (Executive Director, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission) was thankful for the proactive work of the Committee and Legislative Counsel. He believed that S.308 was “a great start.” However, he is hoping for more detail on how to allow municipalities to access the exemptions the bill contemplates. He wanted a “clear path, or we won’t have as many communities participating as we need.”
He is concerned with the Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs) ability to oversee the mapping and designation tiers the bill calls for. There were also concerns about accountability to maintain compliance with the mapping plan.
Senator McCormack asked, “to what extent would the result approximate the statewide mapping envisioned in the original Act 250?” Gregory opined that the regional process “supplants any need for a top down statewide map.” McCormack was pleasantly surprised, exclaiming “that is another way to see it.
Charlie Baker (Executive Director, Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission) had skimmed the bill a little and believed it included consequences RPCs for not acting responsibly.
NOTE: The consequences are outlined on page 62 of the draft and include the RPC’s losing the ability to issue designations and other authority.
He voiced concern that the penalties included towns losing all their designation tax and regulation benefits, calling it “unfathomable” and “pretty Draconian.” Bray acknowledged this and expressed interest in something more intermediate.
Baker commented that the bill “feels like a little bit of an evolution” and not a “drastic shift in what we do [today] as a process,” referring to the RPC plans that get updated every five years. Sounding supportive, he downplayed the nature of the shift.
Bray asked about the evolution of Act 250 triggers. Baker thinks that jurisdictional “thresholds” should reflect known conditions and be about impacts and not “location based” paradigms. He sees the new proposal as an evolution for the trigger model as well.
Bray commented that NRB and decisions as “fundamentally reactive” and he desires “a more robust planning tool… helping steer [outcomes] ahead of time.” Baker offered that this is essentially what Tier 3 designations are under the bill’s framework.
Senator Watson liked the framing of the changes as limiting development “through thresholds to location based…” She added, however, that the changing terminology is “a concern, knowing how weathered Act 250 is. All these terms have been defined in environmental court over the past several decades and now a new set of terms may be used that will need the same “weathering.” She believes that aspects of the bill need more fleshing out and she is concerned they may run out of time this session to do the work necessary.
Baker suggested they add reporting requirements on certain aspects of the changes to see if they are working out as expected.
Senator MacDonald asked about municipal sewer needs when they start building out in some of these areas that will be newly designated. After some discussion, the Committee plans to return to this topic, but there was agreement that sewer overflows and releases are happening in areas where they are encouraging density and development both in this bill and in last year’s legislation.
McCormack wondered if municipalities would be exempt from Act 250, under this new bill, if they had sewer systems, and if they are dumping should they still qualify? The answer was unclear, but the Committee has the option to put thresholds (i.e. how much overflow can occur before losing the exemption).
Chris Cochran (Director of Community Planning & Revitalization, Department of Housing & Community Development) touted smart growth proposals supported in the bill during his presentation. He pointed to their work being intersectional between various programs and priorities across state government. “We want to make designations easier,” he said. And some colleges in other agencies some ask how to “make designation automatic,” so they know where they can go for development projects. There is a helpful chart he referred to that helps visualize how these designations would work. A summary of their recommendations can be found here, but generally the idea is a less complex system with fewer, but clearer, types of designated smart growth areas.
Bray wanted to flag the issue of “rural towns that are being depopulated” for the Committee to come back to. In particular, he was interested in how they can develop the volunteers needed to tackle planning or zoning. Cochran agreed they should not allow these to be left hanging. “Our 18th Century government relied on volunteers, and it is not the 18th Century anymore,” he added.