Critics say Act 250 rules change threatens historic heritage
07/16/09 7:34AM By John Dillon  Download MP3
(Host) The Douglas Administration wants to change the rules for developers whose projects could affect historic or archeological sites.
Officials say the rules are confusing and potentially costly to business. But critics say the proposal will weaken protections for the state's historic heritage.
VPR's John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Before developers can build major projects, they're supposed to make sure they don't destroy archaeological treasures.
The state says it wants to streamline the archeology rules under Act 250, the development review law, by applying it only to known historic sites. But John Crock, the director of the consulting archeology program at the University of Vermont, says the rule change could result in the loss of significant archaeological sites.
(Crock) And this is part of the state's heritage, the human heritage, and a significant heritage that's unwritten and non-renewable. And each time one of these sites is destroyed, it's destroyed forever.
(Dillon) At issue is a change that Crock says will limit Act 250 review to projects that would affect sites listed on the state's historic register.
Crock says the change will -quote - "gut" existing protections because there are potentially many sites that are not yet known to researchers.
(Crock) If these rules changes go into effect, I'm concerned that they will freeze our knowledge at those sites that are presently listed on the state register, which are very, very few. So if a property doesn't have a known site on it there won't be any investigation of that. And this extends not only to early Native American sites but also early colonial sites that we have a lot to learn from about early European history in Vermont.
(Dillon) State officials say they're trying to clarify the rules by going back to the original language in Act 250. Tayt Brooks is deputy commissioner of the Department of Economic, Housing and Community Development. He says the Act 250 law refers to sites that are on the historic register.
(Brooks) I really think there was just a lack of understanding. But we've been educating folks as to the reason. And frankly, those protections are still in place under our current proposal.
(Dillon) Developers have complained in the past about the archaeology protections in Act 250. And a conference later this month sponsored by Associated Industries of Vermont will focus on the proposed changes to the rules. Brooks - who used to work for the Vermont Homebuilders Association - says the Douglas Administration has heard the concerns.
(Brooks) We see that there was an opportunity to streamline the process and predictability and to clarify some language in the rule.
(Dillon) But John Crock, the UVM archaeologist, says the rules affect very few developments. He says about 3 percent of all projects required field archaeology investigations.
(Crock) It's very rare in the case of Act 250 archaeology for sites to go to the final stage of mitigation, data recovery as it's called, because that's labor intensive and expensive. And usually these sites are small enough that they can be avoided with a minimal shift in the engineering plan.
(Dillon) The state's proposal would also change how the archeology work is paid for. Instead of developers paying for the studies, the cost would shift to the district commissions that administer Act 250.
Crock says the district commissions don't have the money to pay for the archeological work.
For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.