The latest in half a century of land use control measures promises some needed deregulation of new housing - at the price of limiting it to “compact settlements” (March 2023)
While thousands of messages are pouring in to the House and Senate in opposition to the heating fuel price increases required by the Vermont Climate Council’s “Affordable Heat Plan” (S.5), another political battle is brewing, a battle over control of everyone’s land.
Vermonters over 70 may recall the furious battle over the State Land Use Plan from 1973 to 1976. Act 250, enacted in 1970, was concerned with unchecked development overpowering the capacities of rural cities and towns. The culmination of the Act was to be the creation of a State Land Use Plan that would – literally –enforce the correct use of every acre of Vermont, as determined by expert planners imbued with the Greater Good. This did not prove to be a popular idea.
After four years of tumultuous hearings, the bill to implement a progressively enfeebled version of the Land Use Plan disappeared. In 1987 Gov. Madeleine Kunin tried to resurrect the idea. Her scheme, Act 200, was designed to impose a Plan ominously “uniform in standards, specific in requirements, and tough on delinquents.” Protest meetings in 128 towns made the Governor’s goals unattainable.
In 2020 the Global Warming Solutions Act created a Vermont Climate Council to present a Climate Action Plan. Its goal is to drive down CO2 emissions from fossil fuels by 80% by 2050. The current Clean Heat Standard bill is the initial flash point, but the land use control issue is waiting in the wings.
There is a universally acknowledged need for lots more housing. That will require backing off regulatory obstacles – including Act 250 and local zoning – that are too daunting for a housing developer to confront.
The Climate Council promoters are on board with relaxing some regulatory barriers, but they demand a price. Their Climate Action Plan declares that “[We must] support compact settlement patterns that contribute to the reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, enhance community and built environment resilience, and help conserve natural and working lands.”
That requires channeling development into population centers where people can get around by cycling and walking, and no development anywhere else. This is the 1973 Land Use Plan with a new rationale but the same aim: keeping Vermonters out of the countryside, this time to reduce motor fuel usage, defeat forest fragmentation, reduce “social isolation”, and encourage other climate conscious behavior.
An early measure to achieve this is the “Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act” (H.126, 50 cosponsors) ). Its goal is to make sure that fifty percent of Vermont’s area is “conserved” by 2050. “Conserved” means enjoying permanent protection of intact and connected ecosystems. The bill sets up elaborate planning machinery, but leaves mandatory land use control measures to later legislatures.
A more imminent thrust is S.100, a bill “to promote the supply of affordable housing in this State… and broaden housing opportunities.” The 53-page bill seeks to implement two different policy ideas.
The first 29 sections put the State in charge of a great deal of hitherto local planning, zoning, and control of land use. The bill recognizes that our cherished local control, favoring increasingly expensive single family home ownership, has often led to a shortage of more affordable rental housing. It rolls back restrictive local efforts to thwart locally disfavored housing (such as duplexes, quadriplexes and “accessory dwelling units”) and offers relief from Act 250 and other regulations for compact development in state Natural Resource Board-approved “enhanced designation areas.”
But this transfer to the State of power over local land use regulations in the name of more affordable housing comes at a price. The State wants Yourtown not just to back off the restrictive policies, but to do things its way - compact climate-conscious development - that may well run against what local people want. There are respectable arguments on both sides.
The bill’s targeted deregulation to promote affordable housing naturally troubles those who have spent their adult lifetimes arguing that the path to the Greater Good is more regulation. This bill in effect buys them off with $20 million for Middle Income Home Ownership subsidies, $20 million for Rental Housing Improvements, and $35 million for the Housing and Conservation Board, all to be expended in “compact settlements”.
In a Town Meeting week statement Gov. Scott asked that in the bleak fiscal year approaching, where are legislators going to find $100 million a year for paid family leave, $279 million a year for universal child care, and $2,000 million over four years to finance the price-inflating Clean Heat Standard. He might have added the $80 million for the S.100 subsidies needed to buy support for modest deregulation to promote affordable housing – in compact settlements.