Try, try again: Act 250 forests and trails bill moves forward

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Readers:  This story was updated at 2:45 p.m. on Friday, June 26, to correct a reference to Thomas Weiss. 

MONTPELIER — In testimony before the state Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee on Tuesday, successive witnesses expressed deep-seated concerns that a bill providing Act 250 exemptions for forest trails and downtown multi-family housing projects, and seeking to prevent forest fragmentation, might do more harm than good.

But that concern did not prevent the committee, in a 3-2 vote, from advancing the proposal to the Senate's Finance and Appropriations committees for review and an eventual vote on the Senate floor. It's now bound for the state Senate's Finance and Appropriations committees, and will likely be reported to the full Senate in August, said State Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington.

"I'm disturbed by the testimony we have heard from the last two witnesses and it give me pause," state Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, said Wednesday about criticism of the bill leveled by Annette Smith of Danby, executive director of the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, and by Renee Carpenter, an East Montpelier organic gardener and environmental activists Both asked the committee to take its time and call more witnesses.

But at the same time, MacDonald said, he was also in disagreement with his committee colleagues, Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, and Sen. Corey Parent, R-Franklin, who both voted no.

"That's where I am on this vote. I don't like where I am," MacDonald said, before joining Campion, committee chairman Christopher Bray, D-Addison, and vice chair Brian Campion, D-Bennington, in voting yes.

The issues at the heart of the bill have been discussed for years as the Legislature sought to update and improve Act 250, the state's environmental permitting law, Campion said. Building out downtowns by providing more affordable housing, providing a network of trails for recreation and tourism, and protecting forests from being fragmented into smaller private lots are all priorities for the state's future, he added.

"We're not rushing," Campion said, noting the earlier study and discussions of the issues. "This is a very important bill for my district and for the state of Vermont."

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On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott, when asked about the forest fragmentation and roads requirements in the bill, said the administration has concerns with aspects of the legislation.

"We are hopeful that we'll be able to implement some of the parts of the bill we think are essential and work with [the Legislature] on others," he said. "We'd like to see something pass that would be helpful to Vermont."

At this time a week ago, the proposals were all amendments attached to S. 237, a housing bill, which was taken up by the state Senate on Monday for third reading and potential passage. But the Senate secretary ruled the amendments were not germane to the overall intent of S. 237, and that bill was placed on the Senate's parliamentary back burner.

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Next, Senate President Pro Tempore Timothy Ashe, P/D-Chittenden, asked the Natural Resources and Energy Committee to place the Act 250 amendments in another bill already before the committee: H. 926, which came to the Senate as an Act 250 update bill passed by by the House of Representatives in February.

Now, H. 926 is what's known as a "strikethrough" bill: Its previous provisions have been replaced by the former S. 237 amendments, providing Act 250 exemptions for downtown housing development and trails, and setting new rules for forest fragmentation and the wood products industry rules.

Problem solved? Not in the eyes of Tuesday's witnesses, who addressed what they saw as troubling language and potential for unintended consequences for the environment.

Thomas Weiss, a Montpelier civil engineer, took issue with sections that would allow recreational trails and improvements in connecting habitat — narrow bands of forest which connect larger habitat areas. "You are either for maintaining connecting habitats or you are not. This bill is not for protecting connecting habitat. This bill will allow the fragmentation of a connection and the possible complete destruction of the connection," he said.

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Smith of Danby was also critical of language allowing recreational trails and improvements for farming, logging and forestry.

"Please invite an expert's testimony to assist in shaping these definitions to assure they achieve the purpose of preserving functioning ecological processes. At present,they do not," Smith said.

"There are so many problems with what you are proposing that will have unintended consequences because they have not been fleshed out," she said.

Carpenter echoed Smith's comments and asked the committee to hear from more witnesses, including clean water activist James Ehlers.

"I am absolutely appalled that you would remove Act 250 from downtown and village areas. It is extremely problematic," she said.

One part of the bill is already set for a rewrite: A proposed rule that would extend Act 250 jurisdiction to "any new road or improvement" of a Class 4 road of 2000 feet or more will be worked on by Parent and Legislative counsel Ellen Czajkowski. They will clarify whether maintenance of such a road, such as the addition of a culvert, would constitute improvement and trigger Act 250 review.

Greg Sukiennik is Vermont Statehouse Editor for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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