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Feb. 20th Newsletter | ACT 250: History, Housing, Culture, Future

Submitted by Lisa.Gerlach@v… on

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Vermont’s housing crisis cuts across many major issues Vermonters are facing. Why are so many people in Vermont experiencing houselessness? In large part because we do not have enough affordable housing to meet our populations’ needs. Why are businesses having such a hard time finding employees? Because many workers, especially lower-wage workers, cannot find housing. Why are many young people moving out of state, leaving us with a disproportionately aging population? Because the cost of housing and lack of available units is driving them out. 


It’s obvious that we need to build many permanently affordable housing units to meet people’s needs, and we need to do it quickly. But we must also do it with environmental conservation, climate adaptation, community cohesion and sustainability in mind. It is a tricky balance to strike, but it’s an important one to do right. And with thoughtful deliberation, we can. 


This week's newsletter is focused on the law at the center of the conversation about development and conservation: Act 250.  


Act 250 has been constantly under review since its implementation in the tug of war between maintaining Vermont’s natural and working landscape and the pressures of development brought on by the attraction of Vermont as a place to live, work and play. This year, it seems some action will be taken to amend the law. The future of how we address housing and development in the face of climate change and land use is in the balance. I will discuss the law, and the proposed changes to the law below. I hope after reading this, you will have more information as you consider contacting your legislators or the Governor’s office with your thoughts and preferences. 


What is Act 250? 


Act 250 is Vermont’s land use and development law that was enacted in 1970 in reaction to the surge in development following the construction of two interstate highways. As our state became much more accessible to tourists and visitors, development began to change the landscape dramatically. Fearing hasty development that could negatively impact the environment and the culture of Vermont, Act 250 was created to help manage major development projects and ensure that impacts were minimized. 


In short, this law created a process whereby certain larger projects must receive an Act 250 permit. Permit applications are reviewed by a District Environmental Commission, who evaluate 10 criteria to assess the environmental and community impact of the project. 


The statutory criteria that the Commissions use to evaluate permits include air and water pollution, impact on the water supply, traffic and transportation, educational and municipal services, aesthetics and natural beauty, and more (the full list can be viewed here). 


Which developments fall under Act 250 jurisdiction? 

Not everything that is built in Vermont is required to go through the process of obtaining an Act 250 permit. You can read the full list of jurisdiction categories here, but in short, they include: 

  • Subdivisions of 10 lots or more (or 6 lots in towns without permanent zoning and subdivision regulations) 

  • Commercial development on land larger than 1 acre or larger than 10 acres, depending on the town’s zoning and subdivision regulations 

  • State or municipal projects when more than 10 acres of land are used 

  • Housing projects with 10 or more units 

  • Communication towers taller than 50 ft 

  • Commercial, residential, or industrial development above 2,500 ft elevation 

  • Material change to an Act 250-permitted subdivision or development 

  • Substantial change to a pre-1970 subdivision or development 


How has Act 250 impacted Vermont? 

The impact that Act 250 has had on our state is clearly (in)visible. Many are aware of how we feel when we cross the border from neighboring states. Between Vermont’s billboard prohibition law and Act 250, Vermont just feels different. Without rampant development up our hillsides, we have been able to protect our states natural beauty and environment, strengthen our communities, and develop our land in a thoughtful way. The criteria that larger developments must adhere to have ensured that our air and water quality, wildlife habitat, and agricultural soils have maintained their integrity. As a result, we have maintained a relatively high quality of life for Vermonters and visitors to enjoy while continuing many traditional uses of our lands.   


Act 250 has not existed without criticism, though. Many feel the permitting criteria are onerous. It can create extra costs for developers by significantly stretching out the timeline on projects. Individuals without large resources can find the process too difficult to navigate. The nine District Commissions, which are made up of citizen volunteers supported by staff, occasionally produce inconsistent decisions, creating confusion for those applying for permits. Statistically nearly all permit applications eventually are approved. However, some people argue that many ideas are not executed because the perceived hurdles are too large. 


As we know, in Vermont we are in the midst of a huge housing crisis with a 6000+ unit shortfall. In order to meet the needs of current and future Vermonters we need to quickly and consistently build more permanently affordable housing units across the state. While some blame Act 250 for the current acute housing shortfall, the immediate explosion in need is heavily exacerbated by in-migration of individuals. People are relocating to Vermont due to the pandemic, the climate crisis and some other states’ policy decisions creating political and cultural tensions or the removal of individual rights. Houses are being purchased as second homes, units are being converted to short term rentals, and hedge funds are purchasing residential properties, leaving Vermonters with fewer housing options.  


The bottom line is that we need to build more affordable housing across our state, and we must continue to be conscious of the impact that we are having on our environment and our communities as we do it. This balance is difficult, but it’s a crucial one to maintain if we want to keep the unique character of Vermont alive. 



Reform Proposals 

With these controversies in mind, it’s no surprise that some people and groups have been calling for all sorts of reforms to Act 250. Within the last few months of 2023, three studies (1. Regional Future Land Use, 2. State Designation 2050, and 3. Natural Resource Board's Necessary Changes to Act 250 aka "Act 250 Modernization"), having to do with Act 250 were completed, and shockingly they had a lot of alignment in their suggestions for modernizing the law. 


Four bills have been proposed as a result of these report: H.687, H.719, S.308, and S.311. While there are a lot of similarities among these bills, some are more controversial than others. 


Of these bills, H.687 in the House Committee on Environment and Energy is under the most consideration. It includes the broadest consensus around regulatory reform from an array of environmental organizations and housing developers. 


This bill is still being worked on, so several aspects of it may change, but some key aspects of it include: 

  • Discouraging forest fragmentation in forest blocks 

  • A “road rule” that requires Act 250 review for development more than 500 ft from a State or town highway  

  • New designated categories for land based on ecosystem function: 

  • 1A and 1B: Town/ Village centers and Planned Growth Areas- This category includes areas that are already prepped for development and land that is suitable for dense development around downtown areas. In order to encourage denser development in places where water and sewer infrastructure already exists, Act 250 requirements will be loosened. 

  • 2: Transition areas, recreation areas, and other- This encompasses areas that do not fall into categories 1 or 3, which is most of the state.  Rules for obtaining Act 250 permits will remain largely the same for this category. 

  • 3: Critical Resource Area- This category is still being defined by the committee and will be determined by a public process with input from scientists and specialists, but it is meant to encompass areas that have resources that are critical to our ecosystems. Act 250 requirements will be tightened up in these areas. 


To put it plainly, this recategorization will make it easier to develop denser downtown areas while continuing to protect areas that are ecologically important. 


Even though the input for the changes was largely driven by administration officials, the Governor has recently begun to push for changes that would dramatically open up larger scale development across a far wider swath of Vermont. Please note, these maps of the state show the breadth of areas that would be impacted to allow for increased development under the compromise agreement.  The newer ideas recently promoted by the Governor would include the vast majority of the Vermont landscape and would likely irreversibly change the feel of Vermont as mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter. 


Camel's Hump mountain



As a policy maker for 18 years, including six on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee I have been through many discussions about the challenges and successes of Act 250. I do agree that some modernization is needed given the original law was created over 50 years ago. We have a better understanding of the need to create livable, walkable villages and towns. We understand the need to reduce forest fragmentation to protect wildlife habitat and enrich climate resilience. We know we need more affordable housing but must do it in a thoughtful way that maintains our community and landscape character. I hope we can move forward by reducing redundancy and unnecessary hurdles in order to reduce costs, while not removing important criteria that have made Vermont the incredibly special place that we call home. 


We encourage you to contact your legislators and the Governor’s office on this issue and other issues that are important to you.  



Lt Governor David Zuckerman