Governor wants to streamline Act 250

12/02/08 7:34AM By John Dillon
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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas wants to streamline the state's environmental review process.

But the governor's new permit reform task force has already drawn fire. Environmentalists say they haven't yet been part of the discussion, and some question whether reform is needed.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Last summer, in the middle of his re-election campaign, the governor included permit reform in his plan to stimulate the state economy.

So a task force of top administration officials is gathering ideas. Peter Young is chairman of the state Natural Resources Board, which oversees the Act 250 land use law. Young also chairs the permit reform task force. The other two members are Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn and Environmental Commissioner Laura Pelosi.

(Young) "We're looking at efficiencies. For example, one of the things that's been talked about over the years is on-the-record review. On-the-record review would mean that if you appeal something, the reviewing body looks at the record to see if things were done correctly. It doesn't re-try it again."

(Dillon) The task force has also dusted off other proposals from the past. One is to make permits issued by the Agency of Natural Resources carry greater weight in Act 250 proceedings.

For example, if a developer gets a water quality permit from the ANR, that permit could then be used to satisfy the water quality criteria of Act 250.

Jay Kenlan, a lawyer in Rutland who represents business clients in Act 250, says the various reviews can be duplicative and a burden for business.

(Kenlan) "And I think there's a general sense among those who work in the process on a regular basis that it is much too time-consuming and in many cases much too expensive for the result that comes out of it."

(Dillon) The same argument was made by Governor Douglas. In a recent speech, the governor said that it takes an average of 278 days for a company to get an Act 250 permit.

But Brian Shupe of the Vermont Natural Resources Council in Montpelier says that statistic is very misleading. Shupe, who heads the environmental group's sustainable communities program, says the state's own data show that two-thirds of all applicants get their permits within 60 days.

Shupe says the governor's number must include one or two lengthy and contentious Act 250 cases.

(Shupe) "A major concern that we have is that the governor is pursuing permit reform or changes to the process based on a false premise that the system is broken. The premise that the system is broken doesn't stand up to the data generated by the Natural Resources Board.  The permitting process isn't that time consumptive for most applications, in fact for all but a very few."

(Dillon) The last major changes to the permit process took place in 2004, when the Legislature consolidated environmental appeals.

Environmental groups said they had just heard about the latest effort even though the administration wants feedback by next week. Annette Smith is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

(Smith) "Hello! Three people do not make a task force. A deadline of December 9 is not timely, and with no notification to anyone except private practice attorneys, this isn't a fair process. So we're trying to look at a process that needs reform with an unfair process."

(Dillon) Peter Young, the chairman of the Natural Resources Board, says the task force will reach out to environmental groups to get their ideas.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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