Statewide planning process on agendaDecember 23,2012
“From the tops of our mountains to our forests and our fields, let’s all get together and figure out what goes where.”
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier
By Peter Hirschfeld
MONTPELIER — When Vermont’s watershed land-development law won approval in 1970, the legislation originally had a companion bill that called for a statewide planning process.
Act 250’s legislative partner, however, never made it through the General Assembly. More than 40 years later, Rep. Tony Klein says it’s time to give it another try.
“We’re relying on Act 250 to do things it was never designed to do, and we’re beginning to suffer because of it,” says Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
Klein says Act 250, and its equivalent for energy projects, called section 248, are great at vetting a proposal’s impacts on things like soil, water, noise and traffic.
“But when it comes to these larger questions about whether a certain kind of development belongs in a certain place, Act 250 falls apart,” Klein says. “Because those are the kinds of questions that the people who wrote Act 250 always assumed would be answered through the planning process.”
Next month, Klein will unveil legislation to begin a statewide process he says will result in an enforceable plan for “what we all want this state to look like in 20 or 50 or 100 years.”
By making binding decisions now about where things like shopping malls, wind turbines, quarries or apartment complexes belong, Klein says, Vermont can prevent the years-long regulatory battles that have given this state a reputation in some corners as a tough place to do business.
“From the tops of our mountains to our forests and our fields, let’s all get together and figure out what goes where,” Klein says.
Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz says she hasn’t seen Klein’s bill yet, but that new environmental realities make it a good time to have the discussion.
“There has always been a lot of conversation about where the right place for planning to occur is, and whether it should be at the state level or local level,” Markowtiz says. “And we need to have that conversation again in light of our new climate change reality.”
While town-based planning processes may be useful on a micro level, Klein says, the state also needs a bigger-picture view. Markowitz says studies at the agency prompted by Tropical Storm Irene illustrate the importance of a regional planning process.
“In thinking about how we manage our flood plain, what one community does upstream is going to affect land and communities downstream,” Markowitz says. “The question is, can local regulation be protective enough of the interests of landowners up and down our riparian corridors?”
Darby Bradley, special assistant for donor and government relations at the Vermont Land Trust, has followed the land-use debate in Vermont for the better part of four decades. Even with an effective regulatory arm in Act 250, Bradley says Vermont lacks a mechanism to guide development over the long term.
“Where it really falls down is in the cumulative impact of development,” Bradley says. “By its nature, development is incremental, and what a planning process does is look at what the trends are, and what we expect to happen over the next 10 or 20 years, and then try to push things one way or another depending on what it is people want. Going about the development process proposal by proposal, as we do with Act 250, inevitably limits your ability to control the way you grow.”
Bradley says the lack of planning can result in disjointed development patterns that, with the benefit of hindsight, don’t make any sense.
“People ask, how can sprawl happen under Act 250 when it’s supposed to consider the impact of growth?” Bradley says. “And it’s because we just aren’t capable as human beings of dealing with a complex set of transactions that happen over a 20-year period.”
Issues of landowner rights and municipal sovereignty have complicated past efforts to institute statewide planning, and “zoning” still remains a controversial term in corners of this rural state.
“You put a line on a map and things suddenly heat up,” Bradley says. “And it becomes difficult to explain why you put that line there instead of a mile away, especially when you’ve got a bunch of people who don’t want to be on one side of that line.”
However controversial the process, Klein says Vermont needs to find a saner way of going about development.
“It’s not efficient, it’s not being wise with our resources,” Klein says. “And I worry that often it’s not fair, to either the developers or opponents.”
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