Birds or Business? Debate Rages in Pristine Vermont

VERMONT'S well-tended image as a place of pristine natural beauty has coexisted uneasily with a slumping economy for the past few years, and one result has been increasing pressure to reshape the regulatory machinery that safeguards the state's environment.

At the center of a debate over how far that reform should go is Act 250, a comprehensive land-use law and the centerpiece of environmental protection in the Green Mountains for over 20 years. It authorizes regional environmental commissions throughout the state to oversee any sizable development project.

The commissions' decisions can be appealed to the state's Environmental Board and to the Vermont Supreme Court.

But the Act 250 structure is only one part of the state's regulatory equipment. Projects that affect the environment also have to go through the Agency of Natural Resource, which can issue up to 40 different permits, and, of course, local zoning and planning boards.

All told, Vermont's permitting scene has been anything but permissive, and critics from real estate developers to mayors have been vocal. Their complaints echo in other states too. Jim Reed, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, says reform of environmental regulations is underway in a number of places around the United States, driven, as in Vermont, by economic concerns.

Some states, such as Texas, have taken steps to consolidate their permitting processes and mandate closer cooperation between departments of environmental protection and commerce, says Mr. Reed. The goal, he adds, is often a kind of ``one-stop shopping scenario'' for developers seeking permits.

Vermont's House of Representatives has something like this in mind with its now-completed version of permitting reform. Chuck Ross, now an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, shepherded the bill through as chairman of the chamber's natural resources committee. ``We did an enormous amount of work on the bill,'' he says. ``It went through the House without a major change to it.''

But the House version will have to be reconciled with the Vermont Senate's handiwork, and that branch of the legislature is controlled by Republicans who have already shown their contempt for The current regulatory setup by refusing to confirm Gov. Howard Dean's appointees to the Environmental Board.

REPUBLICANS had been pushing for the addition of an additional ``criterion'' that Act 250 environmental commissions would have to consider in granting or denying permits: whether a project's benefit to society (through job creation, for example) outweighed any potential environmental harm. But even backers of that idea came to realize it might slow the process down even further as legions of economists got into the act along with environmentalists and lawyers.

Mr. Ross says his committee's work - focused on ``simplifying'' the Agency of Natural Resources' permitting system - lays the groundwork for far-reaching reform. The House bill ``creates the opportunity for one-stop shopping at the local level for permits,'' he says. He explains that his bill would only slightly change the Act 250 process, making it a little harder for people to appeal decisions up to the state level.

That's the basic problem with the legislative effort so far, according to Jeff Wennberg, mayor of Rutland, Vermont's second-largest city. He'd like to see the reform process focus on Act 250. In his view, the act's regional commissions lay down different dictates in different parts of the state, thus confusing businesses and stifling development. And only those with a direct interest in a project - towns, abutters, developers themselves - should have the right to appeal a permitting decision, Mr. Wennberg adds.

Traditionally, the appeals process under Act 250 has been open to advocacy groups with an interest in the environment, such as the Vermont Natural Resources Council. The VNRC is not happy with the relatively light restrictions the House bill puts on appellate standing, says Steve Holmes, head of its Montpelier office, much less the stronger measures that could come through compromise with the Senate.

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