Housing bill stalls in state Senate on Act 250 concerns

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MONTPELIER — A housing bill providing exemptions from Act 250 for multifamily housing in designated downtown and neighborhood districts took another small step towards passage on Monday in the state Senate, and then promptly ground to a halt on a procedural move.

But that's been par for the course for S. 237, which provides exemptions from Act 250 for multifamily housing proposed for designated downtown districts. Getting the bill across the finish line has not been easy, thanks to the implications within its provisions for Act 250, the state's signature land use planning law.

But neither the bill nor the Act 250 amendments which the Natural Resources and Energy Committee want to add — language to protect forests from fragmentation and exempt the development of bike trails from Act 250 review through 2022 — are dead yet.

While S. 237 was ordered to lie in the state Senate on Monday — essentially putting it on the back burner until further notice — it can come off at any time.

And the development of a new bill in the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, splitting off the forest fragmentation and rail trail language from the housing bill, is due to be crafted in committee this morning, said the committee's vice chair, state Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington.

Affordable housing has been identified as a need in communities throughout Southern Vermont, and cited as an impediment to the region's economic growth. The region's generally lower salaries, a lack of suitable housing stock and the cost of developing new housing have all been cited as factors.

However, as S. 237 has worked its way through the process, complications have arisen.

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Monday, the quandary was over whether the amendments to the housing bill — all of which have Act 250 implications — were rightly attached to S. 237, and whether lawmakers could accept a compromise between housing needs and their desire to prevent Act 250's land use protections from being weakened. "I believe that was a tactic to slow the process down," Campion said of state Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin) questioning whether the amendment was germane.

But Campion on Tuesday noted that Senate President Pro Tem Timothy Ashe, D/P Chittenden, had told the Senate in caucus that the bill was going to be voted on, one way or another. He is confident that given the support for multi-use trails, for residents and tourists alike that the measure will eventually pass — if not by the end of the week, when the Legislature intends to adjourn, then in August, when it's due to return.

"I believe that trails are very important to the economic development of this state," he said. "I believe the trail piece is something 99 percent of my colleagues will happily support."

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The version of S. 237 considered by the Senate emerged from the Natural Resources and Energy Committee on a 3-2 vote, with Campion among the majority. It was then the topic of an hour-long Sunday caucus, in which some senators questioned whether the state Agency of Natural Resources was on board with the newly amended bill, or whether stakeholders who would be impacted by the amendments had been given opportunities to weigh in.

Still, on Monday, in a late afternoon session, the bill was still moving forward.

State Sen Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, sought an amendment that would strike the Act 250 exemptions. "I oppose treating Act 250 jurisdiction as an inherently bad thing," he said, adding that offering exemptions in a "cafeteria-style" fashion was a slippery slope the Senate should avoid.

"The reality is downtowns are not exempt from the kinds of issues addressed by Act 250,"

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he said.

McCormack's amendment failed by a vote of 27-3.

But the subsequent amendment proposed by Natural Resources Committee chair, Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, which would have added an Act 250 exemptions for bike trails for the next two years, was ruled "not germane" by the Senate Secretary. Under the body's rules, amendments must be relevant to the main intent of the bill. At that point, Ashe moved to order the bill to lie, meaning that it would sit on the back burner until further notice. That move passed on voice vote.

And then, meeting after the Senate session, the Rules committee, by a 4-1 vote with Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, opposed, ordered the Act 250 rewrite bill to be made available to the Natural Resources committee.

Benning, in an interview Monday night, said he voted no on moving the Act 250 items into the mix because there are "far too many questions and not enough has been done to get people that are stakeholders involved in the conversation." He said the Agency of Natural Resources has raised concerns that it doesn't have the resources to enforce the provisions in the bill, and wants to further study its proposals on preventing forest fragmentation. And he expressed frustration that the Legislature was veering away from its original COVID-19 strategy of dealing only with pressing business — the COVID-19 crisis and the first quarter Fiscal 2021 budget — and then adjourning until August.

"Those two things are sweeping in nature and the biggest changes to Act 250 wince it was first enacted. And the stakeholders have not come to the table to talk about how to produce language people can be happy with," Benning said. "You don't do that in a Zoom setting when everyone is exhausted and ready to adjourn."

Greg Sukiennik is Vermont Statehouse Editor for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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