In the early days of the environmental movement Vermont passed Act 250, a land use and development law aimed at preventing uncontrolled growth that would ruin the beautiful vistas for which the state is so famous. It assures that larger developments compliment Vermont’s unique landscape, economy and community needs, giving regional commissions the power to approve projects, prevent them or attach conditions. And it allows neighbors and other interested parties to participate in the development review process.
In theory it all sounds ideal, and in many ways the law has worked as intended. However, there have been numerous complaints over the years about the autocratic approach of the regional commissions that has given Vermont a reputation for being anti-business.
“The Act 250 appeals process has evolved into a costly and reliable dilatory tactic often used by groups unwilling to accept development proposals that otherwise have broad community support,” Charles Martin, Government Affairs Director of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an op-ed piece for Vermont Business Magazine.
Martin was referencing a much-anticipated hotel project in Montpelier that had the support of local design and development review boards, as well as a majority of residents in a city-wide vote. However, ongoing appeals by a small but vocal group of Montpelier residents created costly delays that prompted the developer to back out of the project.
“Montpelier’s current problem is high-profile and outrageous, but don’t mistake it as an outlier. It is representative of what hundreds of permit seekers have gone through and will continue to experience if this law is not updated,” Martin wrote.
That same sentiment was echoed by the folks trying to redevelop the Maple Valley Ski Area in Dummerston into a brewery and distillery.
The ski area opened in the early 1960s and continued operating under different owners until 2000. It has remained vacant and unused ever since, a proverbial white elephant along the busy Route 30 corridor. It wasn’t until 2018, when Sugar Mountain Holdings bought the 375-acre property that anybody showed any real interest in doing something with the site.
The plan involves renovating the base lodge into a brewery and distillery, and holding special events including live music to be held outside. The project received approval from the town’s Development Review Board in December 2019 and the owners then proceeded with the Act 250 permit process.
After nearly three years and untold investment, the District 2 Act 250 Commission finally approved the project earlier this month, but with conditions that could end up killing the deal — the developer’s request to allow outdoor music and use a parking lot along the West River was denied.
“We’re disappointed to receive this decision after nearly 1,000 days of waiting,” a frustrated Keane Aures, spokesman for Sugar Mountain Holdings, told the Reformer.
For its part, the Commission’s decision states that the outdoor music “offends the sensibilities of the average person, or is offensive or shocking because it is out of character with its surroundings or significantly diminishes the scenic qualities of the area ...”
That’s not what town officials and neighboring residents told us.
The Reformer reached out to several people listed as abutters to the project; none objected to music twice a month and none were contacted by the Commission or administrators from the Natural Resources Board to ask how they felt.
Alan McBean, the chairman of the Dummerston Development Review Board, said he was puzzled by the Commission’s decision.
When the DRB unanimously approved the application, it actually authorized the facility to have outdoor music seven days a week.
“To my recollection, no one voiced any concerns at all about noise,” he said, adding there was no issue with Sugar Mountain using the five-acre parking lot either. “The parking lot was built way back when for the ski area and there is no reason not to let them use it again,” said McBean. “Restricting their full use of the property is unwarranted based on what we heard from neighbors at our hearing.”
The District 2 Commission, however, said it doesn’t need to poll the populace “or require vociferous local opposition in order to conclude that an average person would consider the project to be offensive.”
The Reformer’s Facebook page blew up with comments from people reacting to the decision, the arrogance of the commission, and the need to update Act 250. Here are just some examples:
”Of course the commission needs to poll the local populace. Otherwise we are talking about 3 people purporting to represent hundreds of people without seeking their input. Absolutely not. This move doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
”Do you know what else has undue adverse effect on the aesthetics of the area? A vacant carcass of a ski area that’s been left to rot for 20+ years.”
”I think the even bigger problem is the overstepping of the board and the regulations being administered.”
”Another situation where we tie the hands of a business trying to come into this area. How about working with new businesses instead of tying their hands?”
(For another example of a neighbor’s opinion, see the letter to the editor on this page).
Efforts have been made recently to update Act 250, but those were shelved due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope the new Legislature takes up the issue again when it reconvenes in January. And we would urge Vermonters to contact their elected leaders about the need to revisit the law, not to abandon it altogether, but to at least make it less onerous for businesses looking to invest in our state and create jobs. As for Sugar Mountain Holdings, the developer is mulling over whether the project is financially viable without the potential of 24 large events. Obviously they have to do what makes economic sense, but we hope this project doesn’t go the way of the Montpelier hotel proposal.