Testing Our Mettle

Sandy Levine | @CLFLevine

DSC05251When rampant development overran Vermont’s hillsides in the form of shoddy ski chalets, our state’s casual regulations proved ill-equipped to stop the flow of sewage, pollution and bad decisions. In 1969, the prospect of 1400 new vacation homes on Stratton Mountain sent a wake-up call. Our collective response was to pass Act 250. This law requires large development projects to show they meet ten sensible criteria. In the process we ensure that developments do not run roughshod over Vermont’s valuable communities and natural resources.

Considered groundbreaking at the time, the strength of Act 250 rests on three pillars – comprehensive review, citizen decision-makers, and broad participation. Combined, these allow communities to make common sense decisions about how we develop, and how we protect valuable resources.

Forty-five years later Act 250’s — and our own — mettle are being sorely tested. A massive development of over one million square feet – about the size of ten big box stores – is proposed on valuable farmland at one of Vermont’s most scenic vistas in Randolph.

A development of that scale has enormous impacts. The square footage of commercial space alone would be more than what currently exists a few miles away in downtown Randolph, Vermont. A project of this size shows exactly what Act 250 is designed to do, and why it has been a model for addressing environmental impacts. Through the Act 250 review, regional Commissions carefully weigh the impacts on farmland, water, forests, downtowns and other resources. The clear standards reflect what we value and assure that we do not squander important statewide treasures.  As one witness said at a recent hearing for the Randolph project, “once farmland is paved, it is gone forever.”

There is high demand for good farmland. Agriculture adds much to the local economy. Going forward, climate change puts more farmland at risk nationally, and demands that we rely more on local supplies for food and crops. Act 250 helps us meet these challenges. It provides strong and sensible protections for valuable farmland. Location matters. There are stronger protections for farmland outside of downtowns than there are for farmland in downtown areas. This makes sense. Protecting our rural farmland against the inappropriate development that is proposed in Randolph ensures that our resources and our communities can thrive not just now, but in future generations as well.

Citizens play a vital role in the success of Act 250. Like Vermont’s legislature, the Commissions that make the Act 250 decisions are local citizens. They bring their knowledge, caring and local perspective to the process. They apply the statewide law to evaluate local projects that have far-reaching impacts. In doing so, their common sense judgments have steered Vermont away from the toughest shoals of boom and bust real-estate bubbles experienced in other states.

Broad participation is another hallmark of Act 250. The Commissions must rely on the information presented to them. Often they will hear only from a developer, and the effect is like listening to just the bass drum in an orchestra. This makes it hard to carefully evaluate impacts. Sounder decisions result when Commissions welcome broad input and full participation from local citizens, and groups that have an interest and expertise in the resources and communities affected.

We will always face new challenges and new opportunities. The strength of Act 250 lies in its combination of vision and common sense. It allows us to avoid the pitfalls that come with slowly chipping away at resources we know we will need in the future, like good farmland and clean water. Plans for over-development like what is proposed in Randolph Vermont, threaten our communities, our farms, our economy and our future.

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