Authors: David Mears, Audubon Vermont; Jen Duggan, Conservation Law Foundation; Jon Groveman, Vermont Natural Resources Council; Lori Fisher, Lake Champlain Committee; and Kathy Urffer, Connecticut River Conservancy
VERMONT - In this time of pandemic, when the green hills and silver waters of Vermont beckon to people from across the country and world as a safe and healthy place to live and work, we have an opportunity to shore up the protections that Act 250 provides for our land, air, water, and wildlife. Now fifty years after the enactment of this centerpiece of Vermont’s environmental laws, the Vermont General Assembly is poised to modernize our state’s landmark land use law in order to respond to the increasing threats posed by uncontrolled development to our communities and to our way of life. Our organizations support the balanced approach that has been proposed in H.926 to encourage development in downtowns and neighborhoods, while increasing protections for our forests and fields across Vermont’s hills and valleys.
Vermonters may not agree on everything but, if there has been one common thread running through this state’s history and culture, it has been a shared commitment to protecting our land, our forests, our farms, and our rural way of life. Vermont has largely escaped the seemingly inevitable creep of sprawl that has infected so much of southern New England. While we have not completely avoided the spread of uncontrolled development, our State’s vistas contrast favorably when compared to the views across the suburbs of New York City and Boston, the sprawling expanses of strip malls and random developments that now extend across broad swaths of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and southeastern New Hampshire.
In Vermont, we benefit from protecting our open spaces, in the form of the economic benefits of tourism and outdoor recreation, and our forests and farms. This benefit is not guaranteed to continue, since these open spaces continue to be impacted by sprawl development, even as our population has remained steady. If ongoing state efforts to attract new businesses and employees are successful or, as some have suggested, we face the prospect of another “back to the land” migration away from the major cities and suburbs in other parts of the United States as a result of the pandemic, we can both provide a warm welcome for new residents while protecting the quality of life and environment that has attracted them to come here. With development pressures continuing, and as the climate crisis continues to unfold, we cannot shrink from the hard work of being intentional about how we live on the land. Act 250, as modified in H.926, serves a critical tool to accomplish that work.
The recent record-breaking pace of the 2020 hurricane season is an ominous reminder of Tropical Storm Irene and the catastrophic consequences that the climate crisis brings to Vermont. When we increase the protections for our forests and floodplains, which are enhanced in the proposed changes to Act 250, we give our rivers room to move and improve the ability of the land to reduce the impacts of flooding. These improved protections in Act 250 will also allow us to avoid the inevitable increases in polluted stormwater runoff and sediment from erosion associated with new development in our green spaces. Similarly, these additional protections for our forests and rivers ensure that our birds and other wildlife have a place to live at a time when climate change and habitat loss are driving significant population declines for too many of these wonderful and amazing creatures.
The flip side of protecting our open spaces in our Green Mountain State, and a necessity for doing so, is to promote walkable and livable downtowns and villages. Encouraging growth in the core areas of our towns and cities allows our communities to respond to the need for more housing, and to invest in the critical infrastructure needed to manage our stormwater, sewage and waste, provide safe drinking water, and protect our roads and bridges from floods. Providing safe, clean places for people to live and work within our existing downtowns and neighborhoods is primarily the work of our municipal governments, and H.926 does not change this fact. Reducing the level of Act 250 review in these areas simplifies this important work in communities. At the same time, and through other means, our state agencies will need to continue to provide support, resources, and guidance to our mayors, town managers, city councils, and select-boards so that they protect historic buildings, upgrade sewer systems to reduce pollution from stormwater and combined sewer overflows, and ensure a safe transportation system.
Protecting all of these attributes of Vermont, both our open spaces and downtowns, is essential to our quality of life and to our ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Act 250 does not, and will not, answer all of the challenges facing Vermont’s communities nor should we expect that to be the case. This law does, however, provide critical signposts to guide the decisions of our communities, landowners, and businesses as we navigate a course to continued prosperity and environmental health in a time of rapid global economic and climate disruption.
Our organizations have a long history of working to protect Vermont’s environment and are committed to continuing this work well into the future. We join in encouraging all Vermonters to ask your members of our General Assembly to pass H.926 as an investment in a shared vision of our future that continues a legacy of environmental stewardship and healthy, prosperous communities.