MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott, through a pair of executive orders signed Thursday, sought to streamline the Act 250 permitting process and unify the state’s public safety agencies under a single roof.
Executive order 02-21 would replace the five-person, appointed Natural Resources Board with a three-person board — a chair and two members, all appointed by the governor “with the advice and consent of the Senate.”
Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said she had “personally connected with the Governor” about his thinking regarding both orders. “I will be working with senators, especially in the committees of jurisdiction related to the orders, to do due diligence and consider any possible concerns. “
Both orders reflect proposals previously discussed by the Legislature, and Balint said the Senate will “use our committee process and engagement with the Governor’s team to determine if they are the best course of action.”
NEW ACT 250 PROCESS
In a significant change, the newly-appointed Natural Resources Board, not the regional district commissions established under Act 250, would determine if an application under the land use planning law was a major or minor application, or whether an administrative amendment is warranted.
The regional commissions would remain in place, and two members of those commissions would be chosen by the chair to join the Natural Resources Board as voting members for cases from their region.
The administration said in a press release announcing the proposed change — still subject to Legislative approval — that moving major projects to the newly reconfigured board “ensures a consistent and predictable permit review process and remains responsive to community concerns.”
“There is broad agreement on the need to modernize Act 250 to better manage environmental and economic issues, including climate change, forest fragmentation, Vermont’s demographic challenges and growing economic inequity from region to region,” Scott said in the statement. “We can and must protect our environment and support regional economic development reliant on vibrant downtowns and village centers. That’s our focus in this work, because we cannot achieve these goals with the outdated and cumbersome administrative structure we have today.”
Last year, the State House of Representatives approved a significant update of Act 250, the state’s landmark land use planning law. But the COVID-19 pandemic pushed those efforts to the back burner, and a much narrower Senate bill addressing recreational trails and forest fragmentation rules was vetoed by Scott after the Legislature had adjourned.
The executive order, which would take effect July 1, “unifies policy authority across the nine Environmental Commission Districts, and will maximize natural resource protections, enable well-planned growth, increase predictability and uniformity, and reduce redundancy and inconsistency with other state regulatory programs,” Scott’s office said in a statement.
“Act 250 has served our state well by protecting the natural resources that Vermonters value, providing a voice for citizens, and ensuring adequate planning within Vermont’s regions,” Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore said in a statement issued by Scott’s office. “However, the Act’s basic administrative structure and governance has not been updated in a half century and has not kept pace as the complexity of environmental, planning and regulatory issues has increased substantially.”
Another executive order, also contingent upon legislative approval, would create an Agency of Public Safety, with the intent of aligning emergency management, fire safety, and law enforcement services under one cabinet-level authority.
The current positions of commissioner and deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Safety would be abolished and replaced with a secretary and deputy secretary of the Agency of Public Safety, reporting to the governor. The change would take effect April 15, again with the state Senate providing “advice and consent” to a gubernatorial appointment.
Under the new agency would be a Department of Fire Safety and Emergency Management, a Department of Law Enforcement and a Division of Support Services.
“By bringing together our public safety and enforcement functions under one agency, we will see better coordinated operations, including training and accountability, as well as a consistent culture of fair and impartial policing so this is the right time to begin this process,” Scott said of the proposal. “There has been a lot of agreement between the executive and legislative branches on the benefit of unifying these functions under one agency, and we look forward to working closely with lawmakers to take this step forward.”
“This executive order is part of a larger plan to modernize public safety delivery and allows us to organize the State’s public safety assets to achieve operational efficiency and provide better and more uniform service to Vermonters,” Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling added. “This move is also important to our ongoing fair and impartial policing work and adopting a mindful, equitable and fair system of criminal justice.”
Lieutenant Gov. Molly Gray said she looked forward to hearing how the proposed consolidation would benefit public safety.
“At this moment, Vermont must ensure consistency across the law enforcement and public safety community in applying fair and impartial policing standards and adopting criminal justice reform measures,” Gray said. “This Executive Order reflects an important start of a necessary conversation. I look forward to continuing to review this Order and discussing with legislative and community leaders.”