Shumlin administration looks to relax Act 250 rules for downtown development


Lawmakers are considering a bill that would make downtown development easier and urban sprawl more difficult.

The bill, H.823, is designed to encourage growth in downtown centers by exempting certain development from Act 250 review, the state's land use and development permitting process.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who chairs the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, says some developers are driven outside city limits where it is faster and cheaper to move projects forward.

The Shumlin administration supports a statutory mechanism that would foster the vitality of tight-knit downtowns and discourage strip development. State officials have proposed easing the Act 250 permitting process for developers seeking to build in designated downtowns and growth centers.

The legislation would allow developers to build more downtown housing units, renovate existing development, and offset the impacts of building on agricultural land by paying an "off-site mitigation" fee for the purpose of preserving other agricultural soils. The exemptions only apply to select downtowns approved by the state.

State agencies would review the project's impact on historic sites, state land and roads, and natural resources - instead of environmental district commissions, which review Act 250 permit applications.

Businesses are on board with the proposal, according to Katie Taylor, government affairs specialist for the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"The chamber generally thinks this bill is a step in the right direction," she said. "We are in support of any way legislation can make development easier."

Some warn that the bill would unravel one of the state's longest standing environmental protection policies.

Sandra Levine, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, says the incentives for downtown development could have environmental consequences.

Levine said local zoning does not address environmental impacts in the same manner as an Act 250 permit.

In order to cut back on strip development, the bill revises Act 250 to explicitly regulate strip development. Under the bill, developers must adhere to Act 250 review if they plan to go beyond existing strip limits.

Klein said the committee will close an open vote on the bill next Tuesday. Rep. Bill Canfield, R/D-Fair Haven, is the only member opposing the bill.


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