Candace Page of the Burlington Free Press (www.burlingtonfreepress.com) interviewed Brian Shupe, Executive Director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. He discusses the working landscape effort as well as other efforts they have been involved with this year.
Burlington Free Press: When members of the Vermont Natural Resources Council ask you about the 2012 legislative session, what is the overall assessment you give?
Brian Shupe: I tell them it was a pretty good year for the environment and Vermont communities — better than expected. There was progress on several fronts, and at least one bill with national implications. We had early concerns we would be fighting attempts to roll back the progress the state has made on river management, but fortunately that didn’t happen.
BFP: Can you give me some examples of those successes?
BS: The working-lands bill was an important priority for us. The ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was also significant, and has gotten national attention. The adoption of the Genuine Progress Indicator and funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Fund were also solid accomplishments. The energy bill was not all that we had hoped for, but included some good provisions for renewable-energy development.
We have been raising concerns that citizens have been excluded from environmental processes for quite awhile, and we made some gains on that this year. The environmental enforcement bill gives the public a voice in how penalties for permit violations are levied, and a bill dealing with rivers and lakes opened up Agency of Natural Resources rule-making to early involvement of citizens and interest groups.
BFP: The working-lands bill was an important one for the environmental community?
BS: Yes. There was a tight budget this year, so we’re pleased that the most important new economic development initiative was legislation intended to keep the state’s working landscape economically viable. It’s important because Vermont’s brand has two defining elements: our working, rural landscape and our compact villages and downtowns. That’s the historic settlement pattern that we need to support, and the working-lands bill does this in a strategic way. It invests in infrastructure — things like slaughterhouses and sawmills — and in the entrepreneurs who are building farm and forest businesses. It sets up the processing, marketing, and distribution networks we need to keep the working landscape working.
Paul Costello, who heads up the Vermont Council on Rural Development, deserves credit for putting together a coalition of groups, including VNRC, who called for greater investment in this area, and House and Senate leaders deserve credit for embracing the idea and making it happen.
BFP: We talked in January about Tropical Storm Irene and whether the Legislature might revise state policy on floodplain or riverbank management. Any good news/bad news there?
BS: There was no bad news. Back in September we raised the alarm about the amount of dredging, gravel removal and river channelizing that was occurring after Irene. It was causing long-term ecological damage and putting property owners at greater risk of future flooding. The so-called rivers bill that passed does a couple things to prevent a reoccurrence of this after the next big flood. It bans building berms in floodplains without a state permit. It also directs ANR to offer training to excavators and road crews about river science, fisheries and related issues in preparation for future recovery work, and it requires the agency to clarify what can and can’t happen in our rivers following the next flood.
In the future, ANR will have to document river work that is authorized rather than just giving verbal permits. This is important because after Irene, “verbal permits” issued by the agency lacked documentation, and the scope of work authorized got lost in translation.
BFP: There was also a bill directed at the problem of lake pollution. Did that reach a satisfactory outcome?
BS: That was merged into the rivers bill. It directs ANR to identify what needs to be done to improve water quality, who should be responsible and who should pay for it. We need to clean up our lakes and rivers, so let’s come up with a real plan that has a funding mechanism. Essentially, it asks ANR to strengthen and clarify how it’s going to do what it has been charged to do: protect, maintain and enhance our water quality.
There was also a proposal to create the stormwater utility, but the bill was changed to direct ANR to examine the idea. While a study is not a substitute for action, it will hopefully result in concrete actions next year.
BFP: You were hoping lawmakers might strengthen downtown and growth center programs. Did they?
BS: No statutory changes were made. The issue took a back seat to flood recovery. The Legislature did increase the amount of tax credits available for historic redevelopment in downtowns, several of which suffered a lot of flood damage. This was a priority of the Preservation Trust of Vermont and was supported by VNRC.
BFP: How about Act 250? There was some thought lawmakers might tackle changes in the state’s land use control law.
BS: We supported a comprehensive look at permitting, but wanted to be sure it was guided by the principle of “first do no harm.” There was a proposal to change the appeals process, but the approach raised a lot of concerns, including from business interests, and it died on the vine. In the meantime, the Environmental Court issued a decision that clarified that citizens should not have a high bar to demonstrate an adequate interest to participate in Act 250 proceedings. The decision was in response to a case in which VNRC and citizens had been denied the right to participate as parties. The Environmental Court clarified the standard for party status, which was one of our priorities during the permitting discussions.
BFP: Finally, of course, there is money. We talked in January about budget cuts that have made the Agency of Natural Resources’ job more difficult and the hope that there might be a funding increase.
BS: There’s more good news. The Legislature increased a range of fees for ANR permit applications and related processes, many of which had not been raised for several years. This will raise about $3 million in additional annual revenue for the agency. This is a big step forward in addressing capacity issues that resulted from past cuts that really undermined the ability of the agency to do its job.
BFP: How are you hoping the money will be spent?
BS: They have so many needs! We’re hoping it will be used to rebuild the staff that has been cut, improve environmental enforcement and accelerate the clean up of impaired waters.
BFP: Were there disappointments?
BS: Fewer than we had feared. The most significant was the current-use bill that passed the House last year, and did not get out of the Senate this year. The current-use program is designed to tax land at its use value to encourage landowners to keep their land undeveloped and in use for farming or forest management. To build in financial stability and continue growth in the program, and to reduce short-term enrollment — sometimes called “parking” — the bill would have strengthened the penalty for withdrawing land for development. There was widespread support for the bill among a pretty diverse group of stakeholders, so we were pretty disappointed it failed to pass.
BFP: Let’s look forward to next year for a moment. Any idea what will be at the top of the list for Vermonters who care about the state’s natural resources, open space and development patterns?
BS: Action on the water-quality study is near the top of the list. That report is due by December. We’ll want to look at the unfinished business from this year, including current use. A third thing is, we do need to look at land use issues, and how to develop a coherent vision that unites all the smart growth laws we have on the books. Governor Shumlin ran on keeping big-box stores out of farm fields so we hope to find some support from the administration to protect downtowns. Finally, we hope the Legislature begins to address energy efficiency, especially thermal efficiency such as weatherization of the state’s housing stock, much more aggressively. That’s a pretty full plate.