MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott on Monday vetoed an Act 250 reform bill addressing recreational trails and forest fragmentation, saying the end result approved by the Legislature last month didn’t accomplish what it set out to do
In the bill’s stead, Scott issued an executive order directing Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation “to make recommendations for an alternative program based on best practices for the oversight of planning, construction, use and maintenance of recreational trails in the Vermont Trails System.”
The order also “directs executive branch litigants and tribunals to take all reasonable steps to defer a final decision in any proceeding addressing Act 250 jurisdiction until the steps identified in this Executive Order take effect.”
An email announcing the veto of H. 926 was sent around 7:30 p.m. Monday. With no veto session planned in the Legislature, the bill goes back to the drawing board when the new biennium begins in January.
“Nothing in this bill modernizes or improves the Act 250 process – something that is widely agreed to be necessary after fifty years of existence,” Scott said in a letter to the Legislature explaining his veto. “This bill does not do what it promised to do and falls short of meeting our needs in this area of public policy.
“In fact, H.926 actually adds new regulation and new burdens to our recreational trail networks and recreation economy. This bill does not improve or simplify the regulatory process or provide a permanent exemption for Vermont Trail Systems — something I proposed in 2019.”
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, the Democratic nominee running against Scott, said he definitely would have “definitely” signed rather than vetoed the bill.
“This bill as a compromise — and when where are issues that need further attention you don’t veto the progress made, you sign it and then go back to the drawing board the next year for those other issues,” Zuckerman said.
He criticized Scott for the veto, the 20th of his four years as governor, calling it a “short-sighted approach that rejects compromise.”
He said Scott has “thrown away significant and substantial work done by the legislature, and members of his administration, to protect our forests and wildlife habitats.”
The Vermont Natural Resources Council called the veto “a failure of leadership,” and said it the bill would not have added new regulation to the recreational trail network.
“The bill would have offered immediate regulatory relief for trails with policies that go much further than the Governor’s executive action. Furthermore, the Governor’s Executive Order by fiat actually tells his own agencies to not enforce Vermont’s environmental laws. This kind of precedent is very concerning,” the council said.
On forest fragmentation, the VNRC said sustainable forests have been studied by the legislature for eight years, passed the House three times, and passed the Senate with large votes of support.
“The Governor stated in his veto letter that the forest criteria would pose a new and significant problem for trail networks, but in fact the bill explicitly exempted trail networks from the fragmentation review,
The version of the bill approved by the House would have provided some Act 250 permitting relief for housing projects built in designated downtown and village areas, as a means pf promoting affordable housing development and preventing sprawl. That provision had opponents who were concerned about the impact of development on water quality, especially in towns with insufficient or failing storm water and sewage systems.
Zuckerman said if he were governor, he would focus on helping smaller businesses to navigate the Act 250 permitting process, and on addressing the need for additional housing in urban centers, while balancing that against environmental concerns.
“We desperately need more quality energy-efficient, affordable housing across this state,” Zuckerman said.
Housing is by far the biggest concern right now. With the land rush happening under COVID and before COVID the lack of affordable housing for young families and our future workforce ... that’s the area we need to look at,” he said. “Whether the solutions are through Act 250 or financial support for housing startups, that issue is paramount.”
But he added that Act 250’s provisions are helping to protect Vermont’s rural character at a time when many are looking to move here, “Which is what is was originally designed to do,” Zuckerman said. “So we need to be very careful about removing those protections.”
In February, after months of work and hours of testimony taken at hearings around the state, the state House of Representatives passed its version of H.926. The 61-page bill proposed updates intended to address sprawl, promote development in historic downtowns and villages, and offer initial guidance for recreational trails. It added criteria to prevent forest fragmentation and protect wildlife habitat.
The bill passed the House 88-52 on Feb. 28.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Act 250 reform went to the back burner as the Legislature addressed the public health and economic crisis. The proposal eventually emerged from the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee as a much smaller bill, dealing only with forest fragmentation — development and land use leading to less contiguous forest acreage — and recreational trails.
State Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who serves on the Natural Resources Committee, said his committee worked very closely with the trail community. “We took a lot of testimony and their needs were in H 926,” he said.
Campion said the veto has left those communities facing an unsure future. He also questioned the administration’s use of an executive order in place of the bill he vetoed.
“We’ve seen how unproductive” rulemaking by executive order is at the federal level, Campion said. “I don’t like going down this road at the state level.”
Some environmentalists were pleased Scott vetoed the bill.
“Governor Scott did the right thing, showing courage in demanding a real legislative process that comprehensively addresses Act 250,” said Annette Smith of Danby, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. “Vermont needs better environmental protections, but the claim that H.926 was going to protect forests was a mythology. We can do better.”
“There is no mitigating the laws of physics and chemistry, no matter how much proponents tried to spin it,” added clean water activist James Ehlers, who had criticized the legislation’s exemption for downtown development. “I look forward to working with the Administration and committed stewards on an update to [Act 250] that benefits the environment, the economy, and those of us downstream that depend on the health of both.”